Definition and objectives

A safe hospital is a facility whose services remain accessible and functioning at maximum capacity and within the same infrastructure immediately following a natural disaster. The term 'safe hospital' encompasses all health facilities, regardless of their level of complexity. A hospital is 'safe' when it enjoys the highest level of protection possible, when access routes to the health facility are open and when the water supply and electric power and telecommunications can continue supplying the health facility, thus guaranteeing continuity of operations and the ability to absorb the additional demand for medical care.

 Objectives of a safe hospitals program 

  • To develop national policies and regulations on making hospitals safe from disasters.
  • To protect the lives of the occupants of a hospital or health facility.
  • To protect the economic investment as well as the functionality of both new facilities and those identified as priorities within the health services network.
  • To compile, organize and monitor the implementation of policies and national and international regulations on safe hospitals. 

Estrategies and action plans

 Strategies that guide a safe hospitals program 

  • Lobby with decision makers to incorporate a safe hospitals program in ministries of health and other institutions that contribute to this goal, as well as in subregional integration organizations (SICA, the Central American Integration System; CAN, the Andean Community; and CARICOM, the Caribbean Community).
  • Identify other sectors involved in safeguarding health facilities from disasters (drinking water, electric power, finance, disaster response committees, communications media, etc.) and involve them in joint technical and outreach activities.
  • Develop scientific and academic programs and activities on safe hospitals in universities, research centers, professional associations related to the construction and operation of hospitals.
  • Incorporate criteria for the protection of health facility into health investment projects so they serve as technical guidelines for incorporating risk mitigation in new health facilities. Include reference to these criteria the solicitation of bids on design, construction and operation of health facilities.
  • Establish and implement independent mechanisms for control and supervision of projects, with the intervention of skilled professionals that work in coordination with the team executing the project.
  • Mobilize the national and regional technical capacity in safe hospitals including WHO Collaborating Centers and the Disaster Mitigation Advisory Group (DiMAG). 

Reduction of vulnerability on health facilities 

 The vulnerability of a health facility and the health services network in general can be reduced by carrying out a functional diagnosis, identifying priorities components, including aspects of vulnerability and risk reduction in national processes of accreditation, certification and licensing in the health facilities and ensuring the availability of essential resources for the hospital's response in disasters.

Other objectives to be included in a safe hospitals program 

  • Strengthening emergency preparedness and disaster relief through preparedness efforts and updating national, local and hospital plans for disasters.
  • Training the health workforce and those from other sectors in order to strengthen the response capacity of health facilities.
  • Ensuring the availability of essential resources for the hospital disaster response.

Follow up on safe hospitals 

  • Once the criteria, goals, and indicators are defined, safe hospitals can serve as a model. 
  • The designation of 'model' safe hospitals will provide an incentive for establishing a safe hospitals program and working to achieve its achievable goals.
  • The experiences and lessons learned from this process must be documented and shared at the global level. 

The Hospital Safety Index

The Hospital Safety Index, a tool developed by PAHO and a group of Caribbean and Latin American experts, is being widely used by health authorities to gauge the probability that a hospital or health facility will continue to function in emergency situations.

More than half of the 16,000 hospitals in Latin America and the Caribbean are in areas at high risk for disasters. The Hospital Safety Index helps health facilities assess their safety and avoid becoming a casualty of disasters.

The Hospital Safety Index provides a snapshot of the probability that a hospital or health facility will continue to function in emergency situations, based on structural, nonstructural and functional factors, including the environment and the health services network to which it belongs.  By determining a hospital's Safety Index or score, countries and decision makers will have an overall idea of its ability to respond to major emergencies and disasters. The Hospital Safety Index does not replace costly and detailed vulnerability studies.  However, because it is relatively inexpensive and easy to apply, it is an important first step toward prioritizing a country's investments in hospital safety.

Determining the Hospital Safety Index is a new way of managing risk in the health sector. It allows a health facility's level of safety to be monitored over time. Safety no longer has to be a 'yes-or-no' or an 'all-or-nothing situation, but can instead be improved gradually.

The Hospital Safety Index was developed through a lengthy process of dialogue, testing and revision, over a period of two years, initially by the Pan American Health Organization's Disaster Mitigation Advisory Group (DiMAG) and later with input from other specialists in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Calculating the Hospital Safety Index

There are a number of steps to calculating a health facility's Safety Index. First, an Evaluation Team uses the standardized Safe Hospitals Checklist to assess the level of safety in 145 areas of the hospital.  Once the Checklist has been completed, the Evaluation Team collectively validates the scores and enters them into a scoring calculator, which weights each variable according to its relative importance to a hospital's ability to withstand a disaster and continue functioning.  The safety score is calculated automatically.

The final Safety Index score places a health facility into one of three categories of safety, helping authorities determine which facilities most urgently need interventions:

  • Category A is for facilities deemed able to protect the life of their occupants and likely to continue functioning in disaster situations.
  • Category B is assigned to facilities that can resist a disaster but in which equipment and critical services are at risk.
  • Category C designates a health facility where the lives and safety of occupants are deemed at risk during disasters.

Calculating the safety score allows health facilities to establish maintenance and monitoring routines and look at actions to improve safety in the medium term. This quick overview will give countries and decision makers a starting point for establishing priorities and reducing risk and vulnerability in healthcare facilities.

Components of the Hospital Safety Index 

Evaluation Forms

Form 1: General information about the health facility. This form should be completed prior to the evaluation by the hospital's disaster committee. It includes information on a health facility's level of complexity, the population it serves, specialty care and other available services, and health staff.

Form 2:  Safe Hospitals Checklist. A trained team of Evaluators then uses the Safe Hospitals Checklist to assess the level of safety of 145 areas of the health facility, grouped by location, structural, nonstructural and functional components.

You can download the EVALUATIONS FORMS Version 1 (2008)

You can download the EVALUATIONS FORMS and GUIDE FOR EVALUATORS - Version 2 (2015)

Guide for Evaluators

The Guide for Evaluators is the principal training tool. It provides guidance and standardized criteria for evaluating the components of a health facility individually and as part of the health services network. The Guide is used by a multidisciplinary team of Evaluators, which can include engineers, architects, health staff, hospital directors and others who have undergone previous training. The Guide explains the methodology and rationale for the Hospital Safety Index as well as how to calculate and interpret the health facility's safety score.

Safety Index Calculator:  The scores or values obtained for each component on the Checklist are recorded onto an Excel spreadsheet that uses formulas to automatically calculate a numerical score for each of the 145 assessed components. The results place the facility into one of three safety categories: high, medium, or low. It is important to note that the values given to each component are weighted according to an agreed-upon formula, which has been endorsed in Latin America and the Caribbean, but may not be applicable worldwide. The Calculator module is made available to evaluation team members as they complete their training.

You can download the GUIDE FOR EVALUATORS Version 1 (2008)

You can download the EVALUATIONS FORMS and GUIDE FOR EVALUATORS - Version 2 (2015)

Disaster Mitigation Advisory Group

The Disaster Mitigation Advisory Group (DiMAG) is an international, not-for-profit body of experts from Latin America and the Caribbean, supported by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO). The DiMAG is available to provide advice and services to PAHO/WHO Member Governments-at their request-on risk and vulnerability reduction projects in the health sector. Although the DiMAG's expertise focuses on health sector issues, the Group is composed of experts from many disciplines-engineering, architecture, disaster management, emergency services, economics and others-with a proven track record of working in developing countries.

The DiMAG works both prior to and following a range of natural and manmade disasters, including earthquakes, hurricanes and torrential rains, storm surges, tsunami, volcanic eruptions, floods, fire and explosions.