Investing in disaster preparedness means going with the science

On January 18, Australia broke a new record, suffering the worst day of its COVID pandemic, with a total of 77 deaths recorded, surpassing the previous national record of 57 a week earlier. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approval ratings plummeted and Labor took a leadership position months before the federal election, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese blamed the government for not being strong enough prepared to handle the increase in COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions.

Anthony Albanese’s accusations mirror the government’s own Productivity Commission data, which shows that for every $100 currently spent on disasters, only $3 is spent on mitigation and preparedness. About $97 is spent on post-disaster recovery.

The Australian healthcare system is a complex mix of public and private service providers, which collectively meet the physical and mental health needs of Australians.

The current submersion of the system shows that despite previous waves of the COVID pandemic, the continuation of “Black Swan” events like the Omicron variant is still able to catch up with the system. Others might be around the corner.

Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb first coined the term “Black Swan Event” to refer to high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that fall outside the realm of normal historical expectations, which humans seem hard-wired and destined to ignore again and again.

In Australia, the result is that in a worst-case scenario, almost all of NSW’s 12,500 public and private hospital beds could be occupied – both by COVID cases and regular patients – when the pressure of the he outbreak of Omicron in the state peaked in late January. . There are serious concerns about whether our hospitals are ready to deal with 6,000 people who could be hospitalized with COVID in the first weeks of February.

While there are processes and tools in place for demand and capacity planning in our hospitals, the pandemic has exposed serious gaps in our current approaches as medical staff grapple with critical shortages, the government is implementing emergency powers to tap into resources from the private healthcare system, and patients from public hospitals in NSW are being transferred to private facilities to make beds available as infections s ‘intensify.

Hospitals have been forced to suspend non-emergency elective surgeries on a random basis, with, for example, IVF procedures suspended for 90 days in Victoria and experts warning of further disruption to elective surgeries in the future due to lack of staff.

The current chaos in the management of Omicron in New South Wales, which has led to the largest increase in daily case counts in the world, has highlighted the need for new approaches to hospital demand and planning for surge capacity, to avoid the risk of hospitals being overwhelmed by future waves of the pandemic which we must anticipate and wait for.

It may seem surprising, but very little is known about how best to reconfigure and restructure our hospitals in the event of a pandemic. We just haven’t done enough research.

However, UNSW and UTS researchers have developed optimization models for efficient restructuring and reformatting of hospitals and healthcare facilities in calamitous situations such as fires, floods, storms and disasters. pandemics. Tools like this can be used to make our healthcare infrastructure more resilient to disasters, creating less strain on frontline healthcare workers and ultimately saving lives to deal with future crises that could test the limits. of our current planning systems and strategies.

It is well known that a great deal of practice and planning is effective for future disaster management and for making our health system more resilient, but the time and resources to do so are often limited. However, computer simulations powered by state-of-the-art optimization algorithms can overcome this problem.

Our research shows that simulations can help health system planners and decision-makers predict what will happen and optimize disaster management outcomes for staff and patients, making the best use of the limited resources available in as soon as possible.

They do this by allowing everyone involved in a possible future disaster to play in an online virtual space, with different disaster scenarios, patient profiles and flows, hospital capacity, including ward and bed availability, availability and rosters of staff, availability of transport and ambulances, evacuation options to other health facilities, including discharge of non-emergency patients, availability of equipment, medical supplies and functionality and the flexibility of the different existing treatment spaces. For example, a recent analysis of a public hospital overseas using this optimization modeling showed how hospital managers could potentially restructure a 200-bed capacity hospital to create a 370 beds by reconfiguring existing resources.

Future natural disasters are inevitable and, if the past is to be believed, they will all be made worse by a lack of disaster preparedness. We need to invest more in disaster preparedness and we need to invest more in research that can harness the untapped power of new simulation technologies to help decision makers make better decisions before, during and after they happen.

One of the biggest revelations for many people of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the knowledge and capabilities that reside in our academic institutions.

This is no surprise to those working in the system. After years of criticizing universities and cutting funding for research and education, especially in areas that do not fit the government’s commercial sympathies like environmental studies, academics have continued to go for it. forward because they are committed to making a difference for the communities in which we work.

Politicians are lucky academics are resilient, and they have shown no shame in praising the power of science to guide their decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it is positive that the Morrison Government recently announced funding of over $200 million for four universities for research to advance Australian manufacturing, it is not just about big business and we need to get out head off the sand and fund more research on disaster preparedness. at local level.

This would be the best kind of investment in our future as it is almost certain that without such investments future natural disasters on the horizon will cause unnecessary suffering and loss of life.


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