Preparing for a Crisis

By Michelle Gonzales-Bryant posted 02-23-2021 15:08

Crisis Ahead

We have to talk. Not only do we have to talk, but we must also talk to our staff and employees to ensure that our practices are protected from incidents and developments that may compromise and threaten health and safety.

During the past year, we have witnessed more unprecedented, unsettling, and shocking events than many of us have seen in a lifetime. A combination of health threats, natural disasters, and social, political, and economic upheavals have left us feeling emotional, vulnerable, and concerned---both personally and professionally.

VHMA has entered its 40th year, and the past 12 months have been among the most eventful in our history---the pivot in practice operations necessitated by COVID-19, the unmatched number of hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S., the West’s wildfire catastrophe, and unrest in many U.S. cities have tested managers and required nimble responses.  I applaud managers for their skillful handling of these challenges.

I have noticed that MemberConnect postings are reflecting managers’ growing interest in better anticipating, planning, and preparing for the future. None of us is omniscient and it is impossible to envision every conceivable crisis, but we must be strategic and strive to be as prepared as possible--rather than being blindsided--- when the unimaginable occurs.  

Preparing for a crisis

Among their many responsibilities, practice managers are charged with protecting staff, patients, clients, and the practice in the event of an emergency. Before creating a plan, consider the range of situations that can threaten the health and safety of the practice. Discuss the potential threats with staff, colleagues, and other experts and elicit feedback. The best emergency and safety plans include employees in the planning process, including pre-planning and plan review. It can be frightening for staff to confront and consider the potential for emergencies, however, engaging them in the process can increase their confidence and improve their reactions if an emergency develops. 

Focus on threats that are likely to materialize, but do not neglect the more unlikely ones. Five years ago, were any of us planning for a global pandemic? 

As you plan, consider the following:

  • Check which, if any, regulatory---local, state, or national---bodies govern specific events or threats. Determine whether there are protocols, requirements, or suggestions for crisis management that impact the practice’s response.
  • Update lists of public agencies that should be contacted in case of emergency and refresh employee emergency contacts. Implement a system to amend this information regularly. Include contact information for other stakeholders who may need to be alerted during the crisis. Consider how employees and other stakeholders will be updated during and throughout the crisis. Plan for virtual staff briefings.
  • Perform a risk assessment and identify areas that are most vulnerable. Determine how these vulnerabilities can be mitigated. Describe evacuation procedures and assign escape route responsibilities. If employees must shelter in place, be sure there is a protocol for this scenario.
  • Identify roles for employees so there is a clearly identified person to handle each aspect of the plan. Be sure a backup person is also identified. All duties and responsibilities should be fleshed out. Put the information in writing and create a checklist so that tasks can be ticked off.
  • Create an inventory of all assets with salient information, including current photos of equipment and premises, in case loss occurs and insurance claims are filed. Include backup and recovery data for electronic data. Also, keep copies of important legal and insurance documents.
  • Create comprehensive written plans and apprise key employees of the contents. Make sure employees are aware of how these documents can be accessed in case of an emergency. Review the plans periodically and update and amend as required.

A plan is a start. For the recommended actions to be ingrained in employees, simulation exercises are essential. Drills allow staff to act on the plan. Anyone who has participated in ALICE Training understands the importance. The ALICE response initially feels unnatural because it focuses on preparing persons confronted by an active shooter to distract and confuse the suspect, rather than escape and hide. Through repetition and simulated scenarios, trainees learn to feel more comfortable mentally disarming intruders.  Simulated drills should be reviewed, and performance should be evaluated, and changes made as required.

The importance of mental readiness

When calamity strikes, managers will be among those leading the recovery effort. This is a huge responsibility, and it is vital that they are mentally ready to assume control. Therefore, even before a crisis hits, managers should practice taking control of their emotions during highly emotional times through deep breathing techniques and other exercises. Under extreme conditions, identifying priorities and making tradeoffs is often necessary to power through the situation. Practicing a “crisis mindset” that allows managers to focus on what is essential, rather than doing everything, can be helpful. When emotions are heightened, physical reactions can inflame panic. During a crisis, leaders are bombarded with all types of sensory information. The goal is to ignore the distractions and zero in on the essentials.

Building a practice takes years of hard work and one crisis can undo all that has been achieved.  Preparation and planning can help managers mitigate damages and loss and increase employees’ sense of security. Effective safety and emergency preparation will protect employees and stakeholders, reduce the potential for service disruptions, and maintain the viability of the practice.

Be safe, stay healthy, and plan well!

Michelle Gonzales-Bryant, CVPM
VHMA President