Hospitals Under Fire: How Europe Can Learn Resilience from the Israeli Experience
When Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2022, hospitals in the affected regions were faced with a daunting challenge: how to provide essential care to their communities while under attack. As the conflict escalated, hospitals even became targets with some facilities coming under direct missile fire, leading to the complete destruction of medical centers in high-conflict zones like Mariupol.
Still, despite the many perilous obstacles, most Ukrainian hospitals managed to maintain operations and provide vital care to those in need. In some cases, hospitals were forced to evacuate patients or relocate to safer areas. Other hospitals were able to continue operating despite being caught in the crossfire, with staff working tirelessly to ensure that patients received treatment.
For years, Europe has been relatively insulated from the threat of war and has grown accustomed to addressing specific, targeted attacks. However, the ominous possibility of all-out war now looms over the continent once again. In addition to physical threats, Europe’s hospitals also face the increasing risk of cyberattacks that can compromise patient data, disrupt medical equipment, and hinder internal communication and coordination. These attacks pose a significant threat to the delivery of medical care and the overall resilience of hospitals.
To ensure they can provide care in the face of these adversities, European hospitals are learning how to prioritize hospital resilience – the ability to withstand and quickly recover from attacks. One country with extensive experience in this area is Israel, which has successfully navigated a range of threats including full-scale war.
To improve resilience, Israeli hospitals have implemented and fine-tuned a range of measures to better prepare and withstand times of crisis. As part of Israel’s home front protection strategy, hospitals have developed a critical role in bolstering preparedness and resilience during war or large-scale operations. This doctrine includes a comprehensive action plan that ensures the active participation of hospitals in protecting the home front.
European hospitals can learn from these six key areas:
1. Reducing vulnerabilities: To safeguard against physical attacks, hospitals in Israel have fortified their structures with reinforced concrete and other materials that are resistant to explosions. Efforts to improve protection have focused on securing essential infrastructure, specifically surgery and intensive care units. To reduce vulnerabilities to cyber threats, hospitals have implemented secure networks and systems, and provided training to staff on how to recognize and prevent these types of attacks.
2. Prioritizing staff resilience: Israeli hospitals have implemented various measures to ensure the ability of staff to withstand crisis, manage personal danger, and maintain a sense of social cohesion. This includes regularly conducting simulation exercises and providing emergency support for the families of staff such as on-site kindergartens and educational resources that can be quickly activated in times of need. Additionally, Israeli hospitals have implemented employee counseling services, stress management programs, and mental health support for staff, to help them cope with the emotional and psychological stress of working under constant threat.
3. Establishing emergency protocols: Israeli hospitals have established clear protocols for responding to emergencies. These outline emergency roles and responsibilities and specify the steps that need to be taken to ensure the safety of patients and the continuity of care. For example, detailed plans outline procedures for evacuating patients, activating emergency backup systems, managing an influx of patients during mass casualty events, and providing care at alternative sites such as field hospitals.
4. Ongoing training and drills: Hospitals across Israel regularly conduct training and drills to ensure that all personnel are prepared to respond to emergencies. These drills help staff to familiarize themselves with emergency protocols, and practice the skills and procedures needed to respond effectively in a crisis. Drills may include simulated missile attacks, cyber-attacks, or other emergency scenarios, and are often conducted in collaboration with local emergency responders.
5. Collaborating with other providers: To ensure that they can provide mutual support in the event of an attack, Israeli hospitals have formed collaborative networks with other healthcare providers, as well as local and national authorities. These partnerships – sometimes between would-be competitors – involve the sharing of resources and expertise, and the coordination of patient transfers between hospitals when necessary. Through collaboration, these facilities can ensure that patients receive the care they need, even if one hospital is unable to operate.
6. Managing field hospitals: Israeli field hospitals, such as the “Shining Star” mission to Ukraine which I had the privilege of leading last year, provide practical examples of hospital resilience in action. These facilities have implemented contingency plans for the procurement and distribution of crucial medical supplies to ensure patients are treated even when supply chains are disrupted. Distinct protocols for triage and treatment of mass casualty events have also been established to ensure patients receive timely and efficient care. In addition, Israeli-run field hospitals have benefited from telemedicine and remote monitoring technologies which enable treatment even when a patient or expert physician cannot be there physically.
By adopting these and other strategies, European hospitals can continue to improve their resilience and provide essential care in the face of a range of attacks. Whether responding to a cyber-attack or a missile strike, hospital resilience is crucial for maintaining the health and well-being of communities served by local medical centers.
Ensuring this sort of support for patients, families and staff is not an optional add-on, but an integral part of the comprehensive care that hospitals must provide in today’s unpredictable world. Taking inspiration from the resilient spirit of Israeli healthcare systems and implementing proactive measures to minimize vulnerabilities, European hospitals can be better prepared to weather any storm – creating a healthier and safer world for all.