A decade after one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history struck the Gulf Coast, the health care infrastructure of a great American city has been reimagined and offers lessons for the rest of the nation.
Essential to New Orleans' bouncing back after Hurricane Katrina has been a strong sense of community and cooperation.
Pictured above: National guard members talk about recovery plans with Warner Thomas, Ochsner Health System’s president and CEO, in August of 2005 when he was chief operating officer.
"The resilience of the people of New Orleans has been nothing short of spectacular," says Warner Thomas, president and CEO for Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, which includes 25 hospitals in its network across the region. "Everyone has worked together and been very collaborative to work to bring New Orleans back and make it a stronger place today than it was a decade ago," Thomas says.
Thomas, who was chief operating officer at Ochsner when Katrina made landfall, has been a firsthand witness of how the region not only has recovered, but thrived in the aftermath of the storm and floods. "The health care landscape has improved significantly in New Orleans," he says.
Primary care access is one of the areas in which New Orleans now is in much better shape, he says. The city created a network of primary care providers that includes federally qualified health centers, an effort that was driven in part by Karen DeSalvo, M.D., former health commissioner and current acting assistant secretary of health at Health & Human Services. "We made a very deliberate effort to change health care access in New Orleans after the hurricane to one where the door that patients could most easily get in was one of primary care and prevention," DeSalvo told H&HN in 2013.
And while a big chunk of New Orleans residents and providers fled the city to never return, New Orleans by 2006 was able to attract people who wanted to participate in the rebuilding of the city. "The excitement of being part of the rebuilding has been a real positive," Thomas says. He notes that at Ochsner alone, the number of employed physicians has doubled to more than 1,000 doctors in those 10 years, and the city is now attracting medical tourists for certain kinds of care. (More stats, history and photos can be seen on Ochsner's news page.)
The anniversary is bringing President Barack Obama, as well as his two immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, to visit the region at different times this week. Obama is likely to highlight some of the improved emergency management capabilities in the region and health care system since Katrina occurred.
And Ken Alexander, vice president of emergency preparedness for the Louisiana Hospital Association, says that the field indeed has made tremendous strides in closing the gaps exposed by the Katrina disaster.
While not discounting the value of that, Alexander says the biggest effects have been felt in other ways.
"The absolute most important lesson we've learned from Katrina is the value of communication, relationships and community — and for that community to work together," Alexander says.