Hurricane spurs physician response and support

A message to all physicians from the chair of the AMA Board of Trustees, Duane M. Cady, MD

By Duane M. Cady, MDis a general surgeon who was in private practice for 35 years in Syracuse, N.Y. He served as chair of the AMA Board of Trustees during 2005-06. Posted Oct. 3, 2005.

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Although it's been a little more than a month since Hurricane Katrina paved its path of destruction throughout the Gulf Coast, the photographs still haunt me:

A woman crying near the body of her dead husband, waiting for someone -- anyone -- to take away his remains.

Highways filled with people fleeing on foot, carrying nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

Destitute mothers holding hungry babies. Whole neighborhoods laid waste.

But even in the midst of the devastation and despair, I did see a glimmer of hope. I saw it in the dedicated work of health professionals, and especially in the efforts of my fellow physicians.

In New Orleans and other affected areas, physicians, nurses and others gave their all to patients under the most primitive, even dangerous, conditions imaginable.

These men and women carried on in the face of power outages, food and water shortages, skeleton staffs -- even the threat of violence.

They counted IV drips to ensure patients received the right dose of medication, waded through fetid water to get medical supplies, and set up impromptu clinics in the unlikeliest of locations -- including one in a Kmart parking lot.

At the same time, physicians from across the United States also scrambled to help. These physicians screened evacuees for health problems at the Houston Astrodome, vaccinated children at field hospitals across the Gulf Coast, provided counseling and mental health services -- and so much more.

Still other physicians from across the country inundated the AMA with phone calls to find out how they could put their skills to work. In response to this outpouring of concern, we began working with the Dept. of Health and Human Services as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an effort to establish a national medical relief effort.

Thanks to an HHS-led effort, licensed physicians from any state have been able to provide medical care in hard-hit areas of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as neighboring states. The AMA helped facilitate this effort by making our Physician Masterfile data available to these states, thus enabling them to quickly verify the credentials of volunteer physicians.

What's more, the AMA and the entire federation of medicine continue to help connect physicians to volunteer opportunities. On our Web site, physicians will find not only the HHS volunteer hotline, but also contact information for various state level organizations who need help.

We've also provided financial support to the American Red Cross. In the early days of the disaster's aftermath, CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH, told us that such direct support would be of the greatest benefit to Katrina's victims, at least for the short term. In response, AMA staff members raised almost $30,000, and the AMA is matching each and every one of these employee dollars.

All of the above provided a sense of hope and humanity in the midst of the destruction and despair caused by Hurricane Katrina. I have been deeply moved and inspired by my colleagues across the nation, by AMA staff, and by Americans as a whole, who have opened their hearts, wallets, and even their homes to help the storm's victims.

This is not to say that we, as a nation and even as a profession, don't have a lot to learn from Hurricane Katrina. In recent years, the AMA has become increasingly aware of the need to better train and coordinate physicians and other first responders for national catastrophes -- and we have acted on this knowledge.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, we established a group dedicated solely to disaster response issues: the AMA Center for Public Health Preparedness and Disaster Response.

Under the leadership of James J. James, MD, the center is providing physicians, medical students and other health professionals with standardized preparation for mass casualty events. Its National Disaster Life Support program offers the latest information about the medical implications of natural disasters, terrorist acts and infectious disease outbreaks -- including acts of bioterrorism.

Today, more than 14,000 physicians and other health professionals have benefited from this AMA program.

In response to the tsunami disaster in Asia, the AMA also decided to create a Public Health Readiness Office. This office will soon play a vital role in public health preparedness and response. Within 24 hours of a significant event, it will develop a plan to get information to physicians about the medical ramifications of the event. The office will also help the AMA inform government, industry and medical organizations about physician activities and needs during the crisis.

The office's day-to-day work will be less high profile but no less important. It will create stronger networks between all groups with a stake in disaster response. Stronger networks will help us improve cooperation and organization in times of national catastrophe, and will enable us to better integrate physicians into disaster response planning overall.

In short, the AMA is helping physicians and other health professionals to help patients before disaster strikes, as well as after. The best time to prepare for a mass casualty event is not 24 hours beforehand -- but months, even years, in advance.

I hope that you, too, will take action -- and I have some specific suggestions on how you might do so, both in the long and short term.

  • Find out more about what it means to be an effective first responder. Sign up for one of our disaster response courses. A schedule is available online (link) or send an e-mail to request our free, informational CD-ROM on managing public health emergencies ([email protected]" target="_blank">link).
  • Get involved with your state or county medical association to see how you can help improve both local and federal disaster planning and response in your area. Bring the physician perspective to the table.
  • Finally, consider volunteering or donating. It will take months, if not years, for victims of Katrina to heal, including members of our family of medicine who reside in the Gulf Coast. You can learn more about opportunities to assist those in need by keeping an eye on the AMA's Web site (link).

Whatever you decide, please know that I thank you, the physicians of America, for your outpouring of concern, and for all that you are doing, have done and will do for the survivors of this national tragedy.

Your efforts have reminded the nation of why we call medicine a noble profession.

Duane M. Cady, MD is a general surgeon who was in private practice for 35 years in Syracuse, N.Y. He served as chair of the AMA Board of Trustees during 2005-06.

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