Physicians have an ethical obligation to prepare themselves to respond to natural disasters in their communities, writes the editor-in-chief of the Southern Medical Journal in a special issue dedicated to disaster preparedness.

Surveys Find Physicians Don’t Feel Prepared to Respond to Disasters

Jan. 8, 2013
Dr. G. Richard Holt, editor-in-chief of the Southern Medical Journal, says that physicians have an ethical duty to prepare to meet the demands of care for disaster victims, helping to mitigate the impact of those disasters.

Surveys suggest that while most U.S. physicians are willing to play a role in responding to natural and manmade disasters, but most do not feel adequately prepared to fulfill that role. The January Southern Medical Journal, the official journal of the Southern Medical Association, offers a special issue on disaster medicine and physician preparedness. The special issue includes 22 reviews and original papers on preparing for the medical response to disasters and catastrophic events.

“I take the position that it is a professional and an ethical responsibility to potential patients and society for physicians to engage in sufficient self-learning that would provide them with at least an acceptable level of clinical preparation to meet the demands of caring for victims of a disaster in their town, city, county or state,” said SMJ Editor-in-Chief Dr. G. Richard Holt.

Lessons Learned

The articles were prepared by experts in the medical response to disasters, including those with real-life experience with patient care in disaster situations. Dr. Harold Timboe, a leading expert in disaster preparedness and medical response, adds authoritative commentary on the topic. A retired U.S. Army major general, Timboe's experience includes coordinating the health response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon and leading a team of volunteer physicians and nurses on a U.S. Navy hospital ship responding to the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.

“Each of us in our own specialty, subcomponent of our local health system, and building to the aggregate capabilities at the community, regional, state and national levels contribute to a growing sense of confidence in our overall preparedness,” Timboe wrote.

The special issue opens with a section on physician preparedness, emphasizing the need for doctors to play an active role in planning and supporting the response to catastrophic events. By being prepared, physicians can help to mitigate the impact of disasters in their community.

A section on healthcare system preparedness emphasizes measures to plan disaster-response measures on the local and regional level. Contributions include informative experiences with drills and simulations to build and assess preparedness for catastrophic events.

The concluding section on patient care preparedness discusses disaster preparation and response for specific patient populations and types of care – including mental health aspects of disasters and the importance of psychiatric consultation.

Timboe encourages all physicians to familiarize themselves with resources on disaster response and responsibilities and to consider which aspects are most relevant to their training and experience. “We hope this duty never calls, but if it does, we will demonstrate our readiness. The moral ethics of our profession, duty to the public good, and commitment to serve others require our utmost diligence,” said Timboe.

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