Preparing for a Medical Emergency

In the last decade, in response to global and domestic disasters such as 9/11, crisis management preparation has become essential to the planning of every event. Writing that plan may be as simple as creating a communications flow chart and summarizing a hotel or event venue’s evacuation procedure. This satisfies incidents that affect an entire delegation, but when an individual attendee experiences a medical emergency, how do you best handle the situation, especially when the response to it can vary widely depending on the nature of the problem? In truth, you can’t have a plan in place for every type of medical emergency. A sprained ankle certainly requires different treatment than a heart attack. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put together a comprehensive plan. A couple of years ago, I managed a meeting held in the U.S., but the attendee demographic was largely international. While attendees were on break between sessions, one attendee went swimming at the hotel pool and had a heart attack. Fortunately he, was revived and was able to return home the next day. Although my team and I had a risk management plan, we realized the section on medical emergencies did not explain the process for notifying family and did not cover additional challenges such as language barriers. The incident occurred at an overflow hotel that was largely held for the European delegation. It was fortunate that the man spoke English and was able to communicate with medics and provide contact information for his family. We had Spanish and Chinese translators available at the headquarter hotel, but only during the sessions. No such services were available after hours or at the overflow hotels. This incident made us completely revamp our medical emergency procedures as we attempted to list various scenarios depending on the attendee demographic. First, we needed to determine the best way to get emergency contact information from our attendees. We added it to the registration page, the quickest way to create a database of names, email addresses and phone numbers that can be easily accessed in the event of an emergency. Medical contacts became a required question on registration, and attendees could not move forward to the next question without providing them. Another challenge, however, was determining what to do in case the emergency contact was unavailable. We decided that if the attendee was traveling with companions from the same organization, these individuals should be contacted at the same time the family is reached. We added a question about travel companions to the registration page as well, so information about the person’s travel partners could be accessed and they could contact the person’s family in case of a tragic incident. Having a friend or family member reach out to the victim’s family can be more reassuring than an event planner making the call. For this event, most of our staff was staying at the main headquarter hotel, so we had a separate communications plan for each of the overflow hotels. If you have attendees in multiple hotels, this is a good idea. Instruct your main contact at each overflow hotel to call emergency respondents first, then contact the security manager at your event’s headquarter hotel. The security manager can be responsible for finding you or a lead conference manager who can begin the process of obtaining the emergency contact and traveling companion information. Also, give all hotels an attendee list and, in the case of an international delegation, share each delegate’s first language and find out if any hotel staff members speak it. If your translators are unavailable, hotel staff could be called to perform this role. A medical emergency plan should also list the main hospitals and urgent care medical centers nearby with their phone numbers, addresses and distance from your conference hotels. It should also include the name and phone number of the hotel’s in-house or on-call physician. Depending on the demographic of your group (such as older delegates), the nature of the event (a sports event, for example) and location of the nearest hospital, you may want to hire a separate nurse or medic to be on-site during the entire event. Review your attendee demographic and history of your meeting to determine if this is an expense you want to incur. If your event is being held outside the U.S., it is advisable to tell your attendees that U.S. medical insurance is generally not accepted outside the country. Short-term policies can be purchased for travel abroad. It’s impossible to anticipate every potential medical emergency an attendee could encounter, but having a thorough plan in place can alleviate many of the headaches that accompany medical issues at your event.