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Guest Post: Disasters and Public Health

As National Public Health Week draws to a close, as events in Japan shift toward recovery, they act as an important reminder of how closely tied disaster emergency management is to health. Indeed, medical concerns of citizens are always a preeminent focus of any disaster response.

Regardless of the nature of a particular disaster, the underlying health of affected populations has a significant impact on disaster management. Populations across the U.S. struggle on a day-to-day basis against a myriad of chronic health conditions such as heart disease, asthma and other common illnesses. With good planning and the implementation of effective public health measures, care of patients with these types of common health conditions can be managed effectively in a disaster without increased negative effects to the health and well being of the affected populations. However, our systems of day-to-day public health must be closely tied with disaster management to ensure that our hospitals and clinics are equipped to handle the surge of patients that often accompanies a major disaster. In order to work well during a crisis, these systems work together on a regular basis. Developing a system for educating the public about prevention of common illness and disease and managing small-scale personal emergencies is a great example of an area public health and emergency management can work together. Individuals and communities need to understand both how to manage their own health issues on a day-to-day basis as well as how they would manage these issues if a disaster were to strike. Having a public that is educated about how to manage their own health issues during a disaster is a key component to mitigating the health effects of disasters on individuals and communities.

Federal preparedness grant programs emphasize the need for planning, coalition building, and exercises. Yet in order to function effectively such efforts must be integrated in a coordinated fashion throughout health and medical systems, as well as systems of emergency management across federal, state and local levels. While these systems work well together in some communities, as a nation, we need these efforts to be integrated and seamless in every town and every region across the country. We may need to start thinking differently about how we approach preparedness and response - for instance encouraging the healthcare sector to think in a more geographical sense about how resources can be shared between hospitals, or how communities can work together to assess and address acute needs in disaster situations.

Members of the Iowa-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team help to move a patient along with flight nurses and medics who will be transporting patients to hospitals that are operating outside of the area impacted by Hurricane Ike.
Galveston Island, TX, September 18, 2008 -- Members of the Iowa-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team help to move a patient along with flight nurses and medics who will be transporting patients to hospitals that are operating outside of the area impacted by Hurricane Ike

One of the challenges we face is that the health communities reside both in public and private sectors. Hospitals and healthcare facilities are businesses, and while it's not always easy for emergency managers and health officers to coordinate seamlessly with one another during a crisis, it's even more difficult for public health entities and the private sector to share information and address needs during the height of a disaster. During the course of the past few years we have seen some successful examples, such as corporate pharmacies working with the federal government to disseminate flu vaccine during H1N1. We know success in this realm is possible, it’s now a matter of integrating these practices as a part of day-to-day business so that the system functions naturally in an emergency.

In public health, we want communities to be resilient which they are means being capable of preventing, withstanding and mitigating the stress of a health incident and to recover in a way that restores the community to self-sufficiency, to pre-incident health levels (or better). I'm sure that's your goal, too. So, please, if you haven't already, reach out to your local hospitals, healthcare facilities and public health offices. Invite them into your exercises and to be part of your planning.  And remember that as a citizen, you personally play a key role in this as well by preparing in advance for your own health-related needs and having a family plan to support those needs. It's important to work together and for each of us to be prepared now if we're going to respond effectively as a whole community when every minute counts.

- Nicole Lurie, M.D., MSPH

Last Updated: 
06/17/2012 - 13:58


HHS and the entire public health community play a ...

HHS and the entire public health community play a critical role on our nation’s emergency management team. I worked for years in EMS and public health, and know first-hand how important our nurses, doctors, epidemiologists, paramedics, EMTs, and other health workers are to their community’s preparedness and response. Dr. Lurie and the HHS team are an extremely valuable ally and a crucial leader in spreading the word on the importance of personal preparedness, and growing our national emergency management team.<br /><br />Thank you Dr. Lurie for the great partnership and your ongoing efforts!

What a great article! These are very important ...

What a great article! These are very important needs, that need to be addressed post-haste. I am glad you also touched on self preparedness/reliance. I believe that is a goal the US should be striving to attain. Individuals need to be more responsible for their themselves and their families. Thank you Dr. Lurie!

I think that life and the daily "hustle-and-b...

I think that life and the daily "hustle-and-bustle" keeps us all so preoccupied that we place things that aren't right in front of us on the backburner... This is a very important issue. Individuals, families, hospitals, schools and businesses must find the time to integrate catastrophe / disaster training into their preparedness programs. The odds are high that something like what happened in Japan could occur, but it happened... lets make time to ready ourselves.

As a member of the North Carolina Disaster Medical...

As a member of the North Carolina Disaster Medical Assistance Team (NC-1 DMAT), I feel it is important to point out how much is going on in the background in order for us to be properly trained and ready to help out quickly and efficiently in any large-scale disaster situation. -- Bob Diamond R.Ph

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