The Physician’s Role in Disaster Response

By Deborah Swanson

Alongside firefighters, police, and other first responders, physicians are often some of the first people to respond to disasters. In emergency situations, physicians have to balance many competing priorities, from figuring out which patients to treat first to weighing their own safety against the need to treat patients. If you’re a physician wondering what your role is when it comes to disaster response, here are seven things that can help you prepare for the next emergency:

Remember Your Ethical Commitments

Disaster relief can present a complex ethical situation for individual physicians. Doctors have an obligation to provide critical medical care while also weighing the risks of providing care in the moment vs. being able to provide care in the future. After all, disaster relief can put physicians’ safety and health, and sometimes even their lives, in danger. The American Medical Association provides the following ethical guidelines for disaster relief:

“With respect to disaster, whether natural or manmade, individual physicians should:

(a) Take appropriate advance measures, including acquiring and maintaining appropriate knowledge and skills to ensure they are able to provide medical services when needed.
Collectively, physicians should:

(b) Provide medical expertise and work with others to develop public health policies that:

1. Are designed to improve the effectiveness and availability of medical services during a disaster

2. Are based on sound science

3. Are based on respect for patients

(c) Advocate for and participate in ethically sound research to inform policy decisions.”

Take an Emergency Response Training Course

Your hospital will likely provide disaster response training, and other seminars and workshops may also be available locally. There’s also training available from international and national organizations, such as the American Board of Disaster Medicine (ABODM). Through ABODM, the American Board of Physician Specialties® (ABPS) offers disaster medicine certification and recertification to physicians of many different specialties and backgrounds. After applicants meet the eligibility requirements, they must pass an online exam that runs for four hours and consists of 200 multiple-choice questions. The certification shows that physicians are skilled in competencies critical in a disaster, such as triage principles, protective equipment, psychological first aid and more.

Build Relationships with Local Agencies

If you live in an area prone to floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires and other natural disasters, it’s a good idea to build relationships with your local agencies so you know what their plan is in a crisis and who to call. These agencies may also be able to assist you in updating your hospital’s emergency contingency plans so you can work together. Even if you’re lucky enough to live in an area that doesn’t get a lot of natural disasters, you should still get to know your local agencies in case of a situation such as an active shooter, which can occur no matter where you live.

Plan, Plan, Plan Ahead

Don’t wait until a disaster strikes and then grab your medical bag and try to react in the moment. You should have a plan in case of a disaster at the personal, family and institutional level. For example, if a flood strikes your area, you should know how to keep yourself safe, where your family will evacuate to and what your hospital will do in the time of crisis. Your facility will likely already have a plan in place, but there’s always room for improvement. If you have experience in disaster relief or have gotten your certification, you can volunteer to review the policies or serve on an assessment committee.

Embrace Your Leadership Role

In some cases, you may be directly responsible for helping your facility to prepare for and respond to disasters—for example, if you serve as an emergency physician in addition to acting as the chief of hospital operations. In other situations, you may not have a direct leadership role when it comes to disaster relief. Even so, in emergencies, people naturally look to physicians for leadership. Your nurses, techs, and other medical personnel will definitely be looking to you to lead, and so may ordinary citizens and bystanders. Clear-minded decisions by an authority figure can make a difference in a disaster, so rather than resisting this role, embrace it and prepare for it as much as possible.

Make Sure Your Own Family Is Prepared

You won’t be able to care for patients in a crisis very well if you’re worried about your loved ones. Talk with your spouse, partner, children and anyone you’re responsible for to come up with a plan in the case of common disasters. How will you communicate with each other? What will you do for food and water if you’re snowed into your house? If you need to evacuate suddenly, where will you meet up? Do you have a backup in case the power goes out? Your emergency plan should be customized to the natural disasters most likely to affect your area.

Register for Disaster Relief Organizations

If you’re really passionate about disaster relief, you can be proactive and volunteer for one of several organizations that helps mobilize doctors, nurses and other medical personnel to travel to disaster areas. The American Red Cross is perhaps the best-known organization, but there’s also Doctors Without Borders, the Emergency System for Advanced Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals, the Medical Reserve Corps, HealthRight International, the Registered Nurse Response Network and many more. Many of these organizations require you to complete additional training before you can be mobilized, but if you’re really passionate about disaster relief, it’s a great way to make a difference and truly save lives.

When it comes to a disaster, you can’t just throw on your scrubs and rush to the scene. Preparing in advance and having an emergency plan in place will maximize your chances of keeping yourself safe and treating as many patients as possible. Follow these seven steps to make sure you’re ready as a physician and as an individual in case you ever face a disaster.

Deborah Swanson is a Coordinator for the Real Caregivers Program at A site dedicated to celebrating medical professionals and their journeys. She keeps busy interviewing caregivers and writing about them and loves gardening.

Disclaimer: The viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at Healthcare Staffing Innovations, LLC.