opinion

Haiti earthquake victims need help now

A message to all physicians from AMA President J. James Rohack, MD.

By J. James Rohack, MDis senior staff cardiologist at the Scott & White Clinic in Temple, Texas. He was AMA president during 2009-10 and served as chair of the AMA Board of Trustees during 2004-05. Posted March 1, 2010.

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Haiti continues to struggle in the aftermath of the massive January earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people and injured nearly 300,000. In the wake of this humanitarian crisis, the American Medical Association has been helping physicians connect to relief efforts and supplying needed equipment.

As the nation's largest organization of physicians, the AMA acted swiftly as an almost unprecedented disaster unfolded. The AMA mobilized its Center for Disaster Preparedness to provide communications. The center was created by the AMA after the 9/11 attacks and is a permanent part of the AMA Professional Standards Group. Its guiding forces are James J. James, MD, DrPH, MHA, and Italo Subbarao, DO.

Soon after the earthquake struck, the AMA established an informational Web site supported by the National Disaster Life Support program (link).

The Web site is helping coordinate the deployment of physicians who are willing to volunteer with federal and private-sector response organizations in Haiti.

The health care infrastructure in Port-au-Prince and other areas affected by the Jan. 12 earthquake and subsequent aftershocks have suffered significant damage. This environment isn't one that many of us have ever seen before. It's physically challenging, austere and resource-constrained. Therefore, volunteer physicians have had to be self-sufficient and able to work independently.

And no amount of preparation has been able to equip physicians who volunteered for the scenes of complete devastation and human suffering they have encountered. "Television doesn't do it any justice," one emergency physician told USA Today. "Unless you're there, you can't really see it, hear it or smell it. The experience is so immersive and painful."

Dedicated doctors like this one deserve our support. To assist U.S. government and international response efforts, the AMA site is providing doctors with the latest medical news on emerging health issues and the need for medical volunteers in the area in and around Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, which was near the epicenter of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

As physicians, we are acutely aware of the tremendous burden this disaster places on the medical and public health community in Port-au-Prince. In all, it's estimated that the earthquake directly affected more than 3 million people in Haiti, many who have been struggling to obtain essentials such as food, water and shelter.

Two months after the earthquake struck, the job of healing the people of Haiti continues. While the initial emergency treatment and hospitalizations have passed, the need for continued medical assistance is still significant. As a result, the need for all physicians -- within the disciplines of primary care, surgery and rehabilitation -- will continue over the following months.

The AMA continues to add content to its Web pages as it becomes available. Recent additions include links to various resources for clinicians, relief workers and family members, as well as mental health resources for medical providers.

The pages also include daily situation reports from the Pan American Health Organization and links to charitable organizations for those interested in making a financial donation to help the recovery effort.

The site also has an AMA disaster preparedness information kit. There also is a link to the Assn. of Haitian Physicians Abroad.

Physician volunteers can sign up at the AMA Web site (link).

The information physicians provide through the registry will be used specifically for disaster response deployment to Haiti, and it also may be used in the event of future disasters around the world.

To help physician volunteers prepare for service, a free online training program from the AMA and the NDLS Education Consortium titled "Medical and Public Health Responders: Prepare for the Haitian earthquake disaster relief efforts" is available (link).

It's designed to help physician volunteers gain a better understanding of the essential clinical and public health skills needed to manage individuals and populations affected by the earthquake.

Also, physician volunteers may find value in the AMA's Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness journal. Several relevant articles are available to the public on the journal's Web site (link).

A webinar is also available for viewing.

The AMA has helped in other ways, as well.

The stethoscope, an instantly recognized symbol of modern medicine, is among the physician's most valuable tools. Yet for every U.S. health care worker who uses a stethoscope, there are hundreds throughout the world who must attend the sick and suffering without one.

The AMA's WorldScopes initiative works to get them into the hands of physicians who don't have this basic instrument (link).

In collaboration with the AMA Foundation, the initiative collected and donated roughly 500 stethoscopes within the first two weeks after the earthquake struck Haiti.

The earthquake in Haiti has been one of the worst disasters to strike this hemisphere in living memory. To those who have helped, your efforts are deeply appreciated. I encourage all physicians to consider how they can assist with this ongoing effort to help the people of Haiti meet their ongoing medical needs.

J. James Rohack, MD is senior staff cardiologist at the Scott & White Clinic in Temple, Texas. He was AMA president during 2009-10 and served as chair of the AMA Board of Trustees during 2004-05.

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