Boosting disaster response: Be prepared

AMA delegates call for state and local disaster preparedness plans and removal of barriers blocking physicians from volunteering in response efforts.

Posted Dec. 12, 2005.

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Even life's most painful ordeals hold lessons for us. On Aug. 29 Hurricane Katrina slammed the nation's Gulf Coast, leaving behind a shattered infrastructure, tragic loss of life, pollution, disease and emotional and sometimes physical scars on the survivors.

Our instinct is to look ahead, to focus on healing, and rightly so. But a look back is equally necessary. Katrina pointed out gaps in the nation's disaster preparedness that lingered even after a concerted effort following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to bolster the nation's ability to respond to calamities, both natural and man-made.

The storm made clear that much more still needs to be done to completely integrate the public health community, physicians, pharmacists, nurses, police, firefighters, emergency medical service providers and hospitals into a cohesive disaster response system. Physicians gathered at last month's AMA Interim Meeting in Dallas took that lesson to heart and made plans to do something about it.

Delegates passed a measure aimed at improving planning and getting physicians involved in disaster preparedness. The resolution calls on the AMA to press each state and local public health jurisdiction to develop and keep up to date a comprehensive disaster plan that fits their community's needs. The roadmap should take into account special populations, such as children and the disabled; prepare for the anticipated public health needs of people in hospitals and other institutions; address the coordination and assignment of volunteer physicians; and be filed with the appropriate federal agencies.

Katrina showed that many hospital medical staffs are unprepared for incidents resulting in mass casualties. It also highlighted the barriers faced by doctors who wanted to help. The AMA resolution takes on those issues.

It tasks the AMA with refining and more actively promoting its three National Disaster Life Support courses designed to train physicians and other health professionals to deal with catastrophic events and terrorism. The Association also must work with the various levels of government and medical boards to create a clearinghouse of volunteer doctors. The clearinghouse would validate licensure to provide care in areas where an emergency has been declared. Lastly, the AMA is charged with supporting congressional legislation that would give qualified physician volunteers medical liability immunity in cases of national disaster or federal emergency.

These efforts will build on an already extensive set of resources and programs the AMA developed after the Sept. 11 attacks. These resources are organized under the umbrella of the Association's Center for Public Health Preparedness and Disaster Response. Included among them are the training courses, numerous Hurricane Katrina relief initiatives, educational materials on bioterrorism and links to other sources of information.

Implicit in all of this is that individual physicians have a role to play in helping their communities prepare for and then cope with any acts of terrorism and natural disasters. That is why the AMA is working on both the big picture by helping to shore up the response system as a whole and on a more personal level by educating doctors about their part in planning and response, and making it easier for physicians to pitch in as volunteers.

It is through the efforts of the AMA and individual physicians that the hard lessons taught by Katrina will not only be learned but will also be put to use to lessen the blow the next time disaster strikes.

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External links

AMA Center for Public Health Preparedness and Disaster Response (link)

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