A surge in volunteers following a major disaster can overwhelm a response system, and without overall coordination, can actually make a situation worse instead of better.
The outpouring of medical volunteers who responded to the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti in January provides a roadmap for health care providers during future disasters, say the authors of a New England Journal of Medicine "Perspectives" piece published online February 24.
Thousands of doctors and nurses stepped up to help following the quake, but many were frustrated by difficulties connecting with a system that could immediately take advantage of their skills in the disaster zone. But lead author Raina Merchant, MD, an emergency physician and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says that volunteers can enhance their effectiveness by preparing for a disaster before it occurs and thinking critically about their ability to respond.
Among Merchant and her colleagues' recommendations for health care workers who wish to volunteer during global disasters:
The authors also urge volunteers to consider where in the disaster cycle -- early response, when the bulk of volunteers tend to come forward, or recovery and reconstruction -- their skills would be most appropriate, and to be mindful of the need to support relief efforts even after the world's attention has turned to other news.
"Once immediate needs are addressed, the recovery phase begins, and there is often a prolonged delay before local health care systems can function even minimally," they write. "Health care volunteers are often less numerous during this time although the need for medical assistance remains vast."
Other authors of the piece include Janet E. Leigh, BDS, DMD, a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellow, and Nicole Lurie, MD, MSPH, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in the Department of Health and Human Services.
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