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Hospitals unprepared for bioterror

Urban hospitals have begun preparing for a possible bioterrorism attack, but much work remains.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Urban hospitals have begun preparing for a possible bioterrorism attack, but much work remains: Many hospitals have not conducted drills and lack needed equipment, congressional investigators said Wednesday.

Hospitals are considered key in preparing for bioterrorism, since victims are likely to show up first in emergency rooms. Doctors will be charged with diagnosing their illnesses, and hospitals could be overwhelmed if there are a large number of victims.

“The staff and equipment that hospitals would require to respond to a bioterrorist attack with mass casualties are far greater than what are needed for everyday performance,” the General Accounting Office said in a report released Wednesday. “Meeting those needs fully could be extremely difficult because bioterrorism preparedness is expensive and hospitals are reluctant to create capacity that is not needed on a routine basis and may never be used.”

The GAO surveyed urban hospitals found that most said they were engaged in “basic planning and coordination activities.” Four out of five said they have a written emergency response plan addressing bioterrorism, and nearly all hospitals said they were part of local, state or regional disaster planning committees.

Most hospitals said they had given at least some training to doctors and nurses on how to diagnose diseases caused by agents that could be used in an attack, such as anthrax or botulism.

Fewer than half of the hospitals surveyed had conducted drills or exercises simulating a response to a bioterror attack.

Hospitals also lack needed equipment for a large number of patients. For instance, a large number of ventilators might be required to treat a large number of patients sick with anthrax or botulism, yet half the hospitals reported having fewer than six ventilators per 100 staffed beds.

To help prepare for bioterrorism, the Department of Health and Human Services gave hospitals $125 million last year, with another $515 million planned for this year.

The GAO findings come from a 2002 survey of urban hospitals with emergency rooms. Investigators sent surveys to 2,041 hospitals and received responses from 73 percent of them. The American Hospital Association told the GAO it generally agreed with its findings.