Baylor College of Medicine News

Health care workers face difficulties in natural disaster relief

When natural disasters such as the devastating earthquake in Haiti occur, medical personnel are among the first responders. An emergency medicine expert at Baylor College of Medicine says understanding what is needed in situations like these is the first step to preparing for disaster relief.

Medical infrastructure compromised

"It is important to go into a disaster situation understanding that the entire medical infrastructure could be destroyed," said Dr. Bobby Kapur, assistant professor of medicine at BCM and director of emergency medicine education at Ben Taub General Hospital. "The disaster could have destroyed hospitals and clinics and injured, or even worse, killed health care workers."

The two stages following a natural disaster are immediate response, meaning emergency care and rescue, and public health concerns in the days following the event.

Stages of response

Using the knowledge from past earthquake disasters, Kapur said most injuries are crush injuries from falling debris and lacerations. Those who are trapped may face infection or even kidney failure. Surgery facilities, intensive care units and critical care units must be set up and supplied quickly to accommodate the need.

Public health is also a concern in the days following a disaster. Hygiene, shelter and clean water needed to keep those who did not suffer life threatening injuries from becoming ill. 

"Another concern is supplying those with chronic illness the medications they need," Kapur said. "You have to think about those who suffer from illnesses like diabetes or asthma. How and where will they get their regular medications so their conditions don't worsen?" 

Those who are responding to a disaster should stay in close communication with the organization that is coordinating the relief effort, Kapur said.

"Some disasters require international attention. One country may focus on health care, another on supplies or food and water," Kapur said. "Knowing how the response effort is being coordinated will ensure that all resources can be delivered in the most efficient and organized manner."