Keeping hospitals safe in emergencies protects people's health

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Opening remarks at World Health Day ceremony

Honourable Vice Minister Huang, Vice Mayor of Beijing, Mr Ding Xiangyang, Dr Shin Young-soo, Regional Director of WHO’s office for the Western Pacific, new WHO Goodwill Ambassador Jet Li, distinguished members of the hospital faculty, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I am most pleased to be in Beijing as we commemorate World Health Day. This year, we are drawing attention to the need to make hospitals safe during emergencies.

What I have seen this morning gives me great confidence. Hospitals can indeed be prepared to manage emergencies, safely and efficiently.

Just four days ago, I participated in the opening of an international conference on health responses to natural disasters. This was held in Chengdu City, near the epicentre of the May 2008 earthquake that devastated the area. More than 90 000 people died or were missing as a result of that event. Close to 400 000 were injured, and as many as 11 million people lost their homes.

In addition, some 11 000 health facilities of all types were damaged or destroyed. In the subsequent reconstruction phase, steps are being taken to make hospitals and other health facilities safe during emergencies. This is a smart move to make.

The tragedy of a major emergency or disaster is compounded when health facilities fail. When a hospital collapses or its functions are disrupted, lives that depend on emergency care can be lost. Interruptions in routine services can also be deadly.

Most lives are lost or saved in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. People count on hospitals to respond, swiftly and efficiently, as the lifeline for survival and the backbone of support.

In large emergencies, such as those caused by earthquakes or floods, some countries have lost as much as 50% of their hospital capacity, right at the time when life-saving services were most acutely needed. This means added logistical challenges and lost time when patients in need of life-saving care have to be evacuated to other sites.

Apart from causing increased suffering and loss of life, the failure of health facilities during an emergency can provoke a public outcry. Such public concern is fully justified.

As abundant evidence shows, it costs surprisingly little to construct a new hospital that can withstand the shocks of earthquakes, floods, or high winds. It costs even less to retrofit existing facilities to keep their services running at critical times. It costs almost nothing to integrate risk management and emergency preparedness into a hospital’s operational plans.

When a new hospital is built, construction specifically designed to withstand earthquakes and extreme weather events adds just 4% to the cost. This is a very small amount when you consider the huge investment lost when a hospital collapses.

Experience in Latin America and the Caribbean shows that retrofitting a structurally sound facility will cost no more than 1% of the hospital’s budget, but will protect up to 90% of its value.

To commemorate World Health Day this year, WHO is advocating a series of best practices that can be implemented, in any resource setting, to make hospitals safe during emergencies. Apart from safe siting and resilient construction, good planning and carrying out emergency exercises in advance can help maintain critical functions.

Abundant experience demonstrates the tremendous pay-off, also at the political level, when hospitals remain standing and functioning as beacons of security and solidity in the midst of disaster and despair.

We must never forget: hospitals and health facilities represent a significant investment. Keeping them safe in emergencies protects that investment, while also protecting the health and safety of people, our foremost concern.

The scale of the problem is already massive. Last year, more than 200 million people around the world were affected by disasters.

But we also need to think and plan ahead for a worsening situation. Worldwide, the number of emergencies and disasters is rising. As we are meeting, we are hearing news about the earthquake in Italy and share in the suffering. We send our condolesnces to those who lost family, friends, and loved ones.

This trend is certain to continue as urbanization crowds people together on unsafe sites and climate change brings more frequent and more severe extreme weather events. We need to anticipate a growing number of areas that will become disaster-prone.

Making hospitals safe in emergencies is a smart move, for now and for the future.

Thank you.

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