Prolonged Power Outages Can Be Deadly for People Who Rely on Durable Medical Equipment

Amidst the destruction after a tornado struck a town in Alabama, an ambulance raced to one of the houses left standing to take a woman to the hospital. She was not hurt, but the power was out and her portable oxygen concentrator had run out of battery. I witnessed that scene. I saw a similar phenomenon in New York City after Hurricane Sandy.

Hurricane season begins on June 1, and as seen time and again, one bad storm can cause major damage and impact communities, resulting in prolonged power outages. Although power outages can be an inconvenience for most; it can be deadly for those who rely on durable medical equipment.

After Hurricane Sandy, people who relied on certain medical equipment needed a place to plug in before their batteries completely drained. Many crowded into emergency rooms, placing additional stress on the health care system. Other people had no way to call for help. I talked with one man who drove for hours searching for place to recharge the battery on his equipment and almost lost his life during the search.

About ten days after that storm, emergency teams from the National Guard and emergency medical service personnel worked with my office's National Disaster Medical System to knock on every door of high-rise apartment buildings still without power because health officials and emergency responders had no way to know where the people who needed assistance were, or who needed prescriptions refilled.

Already this year, American communities have experienced floods, tornadoes and wildfires. Our country needs a better way to protect medically fragile people so natural disasters don't become medical emergencies.

Thousands of people in the United States rely on electrically powered DME to meet their medical needs at home. While they can manage their medical conditions well on a day-to-day basis, in prolonged power outages, that's when they need our help the most.

Each of us can make a difference during emergencies for people whose lives depend on electrical medical equipment. If you use electrically-powered medical equipment or care for someone who does, please take action today to be prepared for power outages.

Find out who in your neighborhood uses DME. Make a plan with your neighbors and their friends and family members to check on that neighbor before and after each storm. Know who to call when that person needs help in a power outage. Help the person notify the local emergency management and public health agency of this medical need so they know that someone at that address requires special consideration in disasters and power outages. If you use DME, remember to charge the battery as soon as you hear storm predictions.

Federal, state and local health agencies have begun to tackle this problem, too. My office has partnered with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to find ways that we can use federal data to aid emergency responders in finding people who use this type of equipment and help them in a power outage.

We can't predict when natural disasters will happen, but if we both try to push the envelope and innovate, while not forgetting the good old-fashioned value of knocking on your neighbor's door, then together we can be ready to protect health and save lives.