PHILIPPINES – Health officials in the Philippines are launching a nationwide study to determine whether medical facilities can function during an emergency. With an average of 20 typhoons each year, the island nation is one of the most disaster-prone countries worldwide.
The study entails the use of a checklist checklist of indicators to assess structural, non-structural, and functional elements of health structures. Started in 2008-2009, the project initially developed assessment tools and evaluated 25 hospitals in Metro Manila and National Capital region.
As the hub of the country’s commerce and business, some 12 million people live in metropolitan Manila alone.
According to Carmencita Banatin, director of the Health Emergency Management Staff (HEMS-DOH), the Department of Health office spea rheading the initiative, the initial evaluation in 2009 was an “eye-opener” for some hospitals that realized making hospitals safe from disasters did not necessarily require a lot of capital.
“Tying oxygen tanks to walls to make sure they don’t hurt people in the event of an earthquake, moving critical structures from the basement or first floor of a hospital to higher floors to protect them from floods, were just some of the simple and easy to implement solutions identified,” said Banatin.
Bolstering a building to withstand disaster, if done from the planning stages pre-construction, adds only four percent to total costs, experts estimate.
This year, the new survey will assess more than 2,000 hospitals in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The nationwide study is scheduled for completion by 2015.
According to the most recent government data from 2007, there are 1,578 hospitals nationwide, of which 617 are government hospitals.
Last December, Typhoon Washi caught officials unprepared when massive flash floods swept through the southern island of Mindanao. More than one million people were affected in the hardest-hit cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan.
“Even if the hospital was prepared structurally and all that, we were still caught flat-footed… especially since the rains came during the night,” Enrique Saab, head of Northern Mindanao Medical Center’s emergency room in Cagayan de Oro, told IRIN in January shortly after the typhoon hit.
“We have bomb drills and earthquake drills, but not flood drills because we are not known to be a flood-prone area,” he added.
Banatin said the Health Department was ill-equipped to judge whether or not a health facility was in a disaster-prone zone.
Apart from ensuring hospital safety, the Health Department, NGOs, and local organizations are working to improve the referral system to allow hospitals to deal with patient surges post-disaster.
“Strengthening a referral network will aid in faster response time. Hospitals nearest those in the disaster-hit area can be alerted so that they can lend assistance and manpower or bring in supplies,” Bu Castro, president of the Philippine Hospital Association (PHA), told IRIN.
Some of the most oft-overlooked elements become crucial in an emergency, he added.
“In the event of earthquakes where roads are torn up or not passable, how do you even get to the hospital? Alternative routes need to be mapped out. Where do healthcare workers get access to a map like that?”
According to the Belgium-based Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), the Philippines is one of the most natural disaster-prone areas in the world, with some 33 incidents in 2010-11 leading to an estimated 1,500 deaths.
Typhoon Pedring alone affected more than three million people and caused US$13.6 million in damage to 63 health facilities last September, according to the government’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
Recently, the government released $178 million to its “calamity fund,” a 50 percent increase over the previous year’s budget.
Of this fund, $115 million will go on repairing and reconstruction of permanent structures, while $63 million will be used for disaster aid and relief to stricken areas.