Dr. Suzy Fitzgerald remembers looking out the windows as wildfire flames surrounded the hospital where she worked. “We had a fire in all three directions,” Fitzgerald recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is serious. We need to get these people out.’”
Fitzgerald helped with the evacuation of 122 patients from Kaiser Permanente’s Santa Rosa Medical Center on that night nearly five years ago, as the blaze gobbled up homes and buildings across Northern California. The hospital, which had been filled with smoke, closed for 17 days.
Medical centers around the country say that fires, flooding, heat waves, and other extreme weather are jeopardizing medical services, damaging health care facilities, and forcing patients to flee their hospital beds, according to a report released last week by the House Ways and Means Committee.
At a hearing, Dr. Parinda Khatri, the CEO of Cherokee Health Systems, told the committee that a pediatric clinic in Knoxville, Tennessee, was forced to close for 10 days this summer during a heatwave after the air conditioning system broke down.
Nearby wildfires forced evacuations at facilities in Oregon during 2020, Elizabeth Schneck of Providence Health told the committee.
A majority of the 63 hospital systems and community health centers that responded to the committee’s questionnaire say they have experienced at least one extreme weather event at some point in the last five years, with many of those saying they had experienced more than one.
The health centers reported a wide range of economic impacts from the weather events, with the emergencies they experienced costing between $28,000 to $22 million to cover building damages, closures, evacuations, overtime for employees, or deferred elective procedures, for example.
The organizations are not necessarily representative of hospital systems nationwide and may over-represent both “large health systems with more resources to implement high-cost interventions and small community-based providers on the frontline with limited supports,” according to the report.
The report indicated that medical facilities are investing more resources, staff, and planning to prepare for emergency weather-related events.