States move swiftly to register medical volunteers

At least 15 states are creating statewide electronic registries of medical volunteers with verified credentials, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

GAO recently surveyed 20 states to determine the status of their emergency preparedness and medical surge capacity. The report covers a number of indicators of preparedness for mass trauma events.

GAO found that 15 of the 20 states surveyed have begun registering volunteers for the Emergency System for Advance Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals.

However, the states are progressing at different speeds on verifying volunteers' credentials. And, although the work has begun, officials are facing some resistance from volunteers who are reluctant to be included in the national electronic database and fear that they might be called to service outside their home states, GAO said.

To continue to receive funds through the Health and Human Services Department's Hospital Preparedness Program, states must participate in the national registry by fiscal 2009. Under the law, HHS is required to link the states' electronic medical volunteer registries into a national database.

In the past, medical volunteers typically show up at a disaster site to offer assistance within minutes or hours of the incident. But authorities are unable to distinguish qualified from unqualified volunteers.

Under the registry program, the states must pre-register volunteers, categorize them according to medical credentials and standards, and allow for verifications of the credentials during an emergency.

In the 15 states that had begun registrations, nearly two-thirds were focusing on volunteers in a handful of categories, such as nurses, GAO said. Only three states had registered volunteers in eight or more categories of service.

Moreover, the majority of the states had not verified credentials yet. Most states were registering volunteers at the third and fourth levels, meaning with some or no verification of credentials.

The GAO report also says all of the 20 states surveyed were developing electronic systems to report hospital bed capacity and track medical capacity. Eighteen of the states said they had systems in place that could report the number of available beds in the state.

Furthermore, 18 states said their bed-tracking systems met the requirements of the National Hospital Available Beds for Emergencies and Disasters demonstration project.

Government emergency health information technology systems have been an active area for contractors, especially those involved in credentialing and registration, identification management, bed tracking, disease tracking, biosurveillance, information sharing and electronic medical records.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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