Top Lessons Irma, Harvey Taught Home Health Agencies

Preparation is key for any emergency, but it’s just one half of the equation. As in-home care providers found out during recent hurricanes that battered Texas and Florida, putting the protocols into action is the true test.

Here are some of the top lessons affected providers learned in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma:

Communication and Coordination

Houston-based Genova Health walked away from Hurricane Harvey with one lesson: Communication and coordination between all team members is key to keeping operations going. Genova Health offers care management, skilled nursing and home care services, the last of which operates under its Family Tree In-Home Senior Care brand.

As Harvey pummeled the Houston area in early September, Family Tree was unable to service roughly 50% of its clients due to flooding and closed roads. It took the group one week after the storm to be 100% fully operational, according to Kevin Baxter, director of operations at Family Tree.

In addition to daily e-mails alerting all staff of weather conditions, personal phone calls were made to every single caregiver by care advisors and upper management to not only determine their safety and well-being, but to also check their availability and schedule staff, explained Baxter.

For home care franchise owner Andy Corbett, who has an Executive Care location in Clearwater, Florida, having a landline proved to be valuable in the wake of Hurricane Irma. With some cell towers out, Corbett could reach caregivers, clients and family members when others couldn’t.

While the office lost power for five days, Corbett and caregivers stayed in touch with one another by holding staff meetings in a parking lot; when calls couldn’t cut it, Corbett’s team would drive to check in on clients, as the Clearwater area was not terribly ravaged by the storm.

Palm Beach County Senior Helpers franchise owner Michael Mohl told HHCN that the biggest lesson learned from Hurricane Irma is that cell towers can go down. Senior Helpers, which specializes in personalized in-home senior care, has roughly 300 locations.

“One of the biggest lessons we learned from Hurricane Irma was that even though we took precautions with cell phones, we did not expect the cell towers to lose power so quickly,” he said. “The lesson learned here is that we need to prepare with radio handhelds for caregivers as a third backup, as our first and second methods of communication weren’t accessible.”

Communication with other health care providers and state organizations is also a critical piece to emergency preparedness, according to Paul Ledford, CEO and president of the Florida Hospice and Palliative Care Association.

“Part of that emergency preparedness is engaging and developing relationships with state and local organizations,” he told HHCN. “Florida has a truly remarkable and robust emergency preparedness system. The average hospice in Florida is seven to eight times the size of a hospice nationally, and that’s part of the reason why these programs are so robust.”

Patient Triage and Mapping

Assessing acuity levels of patients is a crucial step in preparing for a storm, and triaging patients during an emergency ensures that the most frail get care right when they need it.

Family Tree triaged patients into four different levels ahead of the storm: Level-One and Level-Two patients were those who required urgent care and were assigned a caregiver during the storm. For Level-Three and Level-Four patients, it was determined care could be postponed between one to four days after the storm hits, according to Baxter.

With this knowledge on hand, caregiver and client locations were mapped to help managers assign caregivers based on their proximity to high-actuity patients. This tool became a great asset for the company during the storm, according to Daniel Gottschalk, co-founder and president of Genova Health.

“Because we had that information so readily available … [Baxter] already had all the data he needed in order to respond appropriately to the disaster,” Gottschalk told HHCN. “We knew which areas in Houston were flooded first and where we were most susceptible, so we knew which caregivers needed our help first.”

For Corbett, in Clearwater, many of his clients and caregivers evacuated the area, with some heading out of state and staying with relatives.

“A lot of clients left the area, or they went to facilities,” he said. “None of our patients had much impact, fortunately. Several families took [clients] out of the area or they left.”

In the future, Corbett says he will ensure that the office has all the evacuation addresses for caregivers and clients, as well as additional contact information to be better prepared. He will also ensure that some clients can make it to other facilities easily, as those designated facilities that can take care of patients with special needs tend to fill up, he said.

“We were scrambling a bit at the last minute, and that won’t happen again,” he said.

Part of the issue may be the resiliency of Floridians, Corbett said, stating that the Tampa-Clearwater area has largely been shielded from hurricanes over the past few decades. As such, residents may not take hurricane threats very seriously.

“In this area, the people are immune to hurricanes,” he explained. “They always say we are going to get them, and we never do. This was a wake-up call [that] you cannot leave you mother alone on the beach. Until you go through a hurricane, you don’t realize.”

The evacuations did, however, impact the business, and one client has yet to return to Florida from out of state, Corbett said.

Helping Hands

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Gottschalk explained that business has picked up as the company lends its hands to help other senior care companies in their recovery efforts.

“Because we had coordinated efforts beforehand, we all were very friendly when the storm hit … We were able to work with our competitors during the storm to help out clients,” said Gottschalk.

Others have not seen business pick back up fully.

“As far as loss of business, I estimate we had a 5% decline in sales despite the fact that we had caregivers on 24/7 duty during and directly after the storm to protect and take care of our clients,” Mohl said.

Executive Care in Clearwater was all hands on deck to help out the area. After appearing on a local news channel about storm preparations, Corbett was inundated with calls from folks—who were not home care clients—in the area needing help. He decided to run a food and water drive, and even pull his marketing staffer from the road to deliver food to those in need.

“Some of these people can’t drive, they can’t get food,” he said. “They have no resources at all, the buses aren’t running, and they have nothing. Those are the people we were trying to help. My teams’ efforts delivered and organized [the drive], and it was so good of them to sacrifice their day off and do food delivery.”

Written by Carlo Calma and Amy Baxter

Carlo Calma
Business Reporter at Aging Media Network
Carlo enjoys running and taking indoor cycling and rowing classes. He tempers his active lifestyle by indulging in Chicago's diverse food scene.