The Department of Health and Human Services is piloting a project to enable emergency personnel to access patients’ electronic health records during an earthquake, flood or other natural disaster.

The project, called the Patient Unified Lookup System for Emergencies, or PULSE, will facilitate data exchange by extending interoperability across different technologies and enabling aid stations set up during an emergency to quickly access lifesaving data.  Once PULSE is activated, providers and other first responders could query it and PULSE would contact health information exchanges, networks and health systems looking for a match to the query. 

“If there’s a disaster and a large number of people evacuate, there’s no way to access patients’ records. PULSE would enable access,” says Lee Stevens, Director, Division of State Policy for HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT.  The federal government would be able to provide support to such local events.

ONC was created just months before Hurricane Katrina hit, causing widespread displacement. “We learned many lessons. One primary one is the need to make data available. Those who need it most are often the sickest and most vulnerable,” says Stevens. (New Orleans responded with its own primary care electronic records effort; learn more abouot that in an interview with former ONC head Karen DeSalvo, M.D., when she was the city’s health commissioner.)

The PULSE project received seed funding of $50,000 from the HHS Ventures Fund in 2014 and an additional $2.75 million grant from ONC in 2015. The federal government is partnering first with the state of California, which enacted several laws that support and extend the electronic exchange capabilities of the system.

“California is exceptional in disaster response because it has them almost weekly,” says Stevens. 

The state’s Emergency Medical Services Authority will conduct a “table top” drill to test PULSE in June 2017.  The four entities that will be connecting to PULSE during this drill are:

  • Santa Cruz Health Information Exchange
  • Inland County’s Health Information Exchange
  • University of California Davis Health System
  • Orange County Regional Health Information Organization

After the drill California will expand the project to other systems.  ONC also plans to extend it beyond California.

“One of the great values of PULSE is that it’s scalable. Other states are interested in deploying the same technology. We’re excited to make this opportunity available,” says Stevens.

“We’ve made a significant investment in electronic health records and health information exchange. This is a way to extend service to provide more value to taxpayers,” Stevens says.