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California Power Outage Toll Includes Thousands of Missed Medical Visits

Direct Relief's Emergency Response team delivers a generator to the Free Clinic of Simi Valley. The generator provided the clinic with emergency backup power during the Saddleridge Fire. (Amarica Rafanelli/Direct Relief)
Direct Relief's Emergency Response team delivers a generator to the Free Clinic of Simi Valley. The generator provided the clinic with emergency backup power during the Saddleridge Fire. (Amarica Rafanelli/Direct Relief)

California’s October power outages forced the cancellation of thousands of patient visits at community health centers, a new survey by Direct Relief found.

Nearly two in five health centers (39%) responding to the survey said they had lost power during the grid shut-offs, and 29% were forced to close during the outages. Pacific Gas & Electric and other California utilities shut off power in a majority of the state’s counties for portions of October, trying to prevent downed power lines from sparking wildfires.

Community health centers that lost power but were still able to open found themselves crippled by the loss of power, forced to slash services, close units like dental clinics, and attempt to operate without the computer systems that are the backbone of modern healthcare.

Beginning Oct. 30, Direct Relief surveyed 114 health center partners in California, as well as 175 health center members of the California Primary Care Association, or CPCA. It received 31 responses from all parts of the state.

Among respondents, 12 centers forced by the power outage to cancel patient visits reported more than 2,800 patient visits were canceled or otherwise prevented from occurring due to power loss. Those 12 centers represent only about 1% of the more than 1,300 community health center sites in California.

“Loss of access to health care, including medications, is one of the most dangerous yet least-understood risks from natural or human-caused disasters,” said Andrew MacCalla, Direct Relief Vice President of Emergency Response. “California’s widespread power shutdowns have revealed a hidden weakness in our health care safety net. We must work together to improve the system’s resilience.”

Seven million Californians depend on nonprofit community health centers for primary health care, according to the CPCA, especially in low-income urban areas and in rural areas where they are often the only medical provider.

In Direct Relief’s survey, 67% of the health centers that lost power lost access to electronic health records. Under federal and state mandates, most patient data is now stored on computers (often on computer servers in separate locations) and is unobtainable during power outages.

Of the centers that lost power, 83% lost access to lighting, 58% lost refrigeration, and 75% lost use of diagnostic equipment.

Modern health care is built on the assumption of steady power from the electricity grid. Even if a health center stays in operation without power, without electronic health records the doctors can’t access lab results, records of current prescriptions, schedules for screening tests like mammograms, records of blood pressure and cholesterol level, or reports from specialists.

A previous Direct Relief survey conducted earlier in October revealed that only 44% of California’s community health centers have a back-up energy source available when the electricity grid fails. Even clinics that had back-up generators found they didn’t provide enough power to operate all their systems, forcing operational triage.

In response to the power outages, Direct Relief has provided back-up power units and generators to health centers and shelters working to maintain operations, in addition to providing requested medical aid, such as respiratory medications and oxygen concentrators, hygiene kits, and Emergency Medical Backpacks, which contain medicines and supplies commonly used in a disaster setting.

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