Recently I attended a Health IT conference in Washington, D.C., but my heart was in New Orleans. On stage, the new National Coordinator for Health IT, Dr. Karen DeSalvo, kicked off the morning. She had been my professor at Tulane University when I was an internal medicine resident. Now she was describing the resurrection of New Orleans’ healthcare system in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I found myself overcome by those memories and by the implications for the challenges that we face today.

I was lucky to be out of state the weekend Hurricane Katrina came to town. It took days to contact friends and ensure they were safe and almost a month to get back to the city and check my home. Even then, I had to circle the city and find a back road along the river, then talk my way past a tired National Guardsman with an M-16 rifle who was not inclined to let me by. When I finally reached my neighborhood, I saw a ghost town. No noise. No people. No signs of life.

If you had told me then that eight years later Dr. DeSalvo would be the new National Coordinator of Health IT and that she would be on stage describing the revival of New Orleans’ health system I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s what happened.

Money played a role, as did IT, and government. But the biggest contributor to our recovery was people.

The Resources that Matter Most

Healthcare resources were scarce in New Orleans even before Katrina. Afterwards, they were virtually nonexistent. The health system I trained in was chronically short of everything. Yet we were never short of belief, intelligence and enthusiasm. This energy made us successful in an environment where failure should have been the most likely outcome.

Perhaps it was dedication and faith that gave us the strength to believe the city could thrive once again. An emergency room was opened in a department store. Two hospitals merged into one building to stay open. Another decrepit old building became a bustling primary care clinic. The people working under those circumstances never wavered in their conviction that it was necessary to do the right thing for every patient every time—no excuses.

The Challenges of Today

Back in Washington, I listened to a different speaker talking about the importance of people in driving health IT success. Perhaps it was the comfortable surroundings or the lack of urgency or the contrast with my memories of Katrina. I wanted to speak up and tell him he was saying the right words but missing the right level of emphasis.

At Tulane’s medical school, people always came first. We had deep respect and affection for our peers, our co-workers and our patients. This fostered a collaborative culture in which we never hesitated to lift each other up and ensure that everyone was okay.

I think that was the real reason we were able to rebuild the healthcare system in New Orleans. No amount of relief funds, grants, protocols or technology could have achieved that revival without people driven to collaborate and succeed through every adversity.

As our nation’s healthcare system undertakes the massive job of modernizing itself, I can’t help but believe the same principles will hold true. If our new National Coordinator of Health IT can truly infuse the spirit and belief of New Orleans into our efforts, I’m confident our prognosis will be better.

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