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Responding to Mass Disasters

Stephen C. Shannon,DO, MPH

By Stephen C. Shannon, DO, MPH
AACOM President and CEO

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s I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are still reeling from the devastation left in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the ongoing destruction of hurricane Maria, and the other disasters to recently hit the United States and the Americas. My thoughts go out to all the victims—particularly those who lost loved ones and/or suffered illness or injury as a result of the chaos—and I am once again thankful for the many men and women that risk their lives serving as emergency responders and volunteers during these events.

Several colleges of osteopathic medicine (COMs) are located in areas affected by these disasters, including Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine (NSUCOM) in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine-Bradenton (LECOM-Bradenton), in Bradenton, FL. While the potential for destruction at both of these locations was severe, the colleges took necessary precautions to ensure the health and welfare of students, staff, and faculty, and the campuses themselves sustained no serious damage.

While both NSUCOM and LECOM-Bradenton made it through Irma unscathed, I am also reminded that today marks exactly eight months since a tornado ripped through Hattiesburg, MS, on January 21, 2017. The EF3-strength storm killed four people, left 20 injured, and destroyed nearly 90 percent of the William Carey University campus—including its College of Osteopathic Medicine (WCUCOM). Fortunately, no students, faculty, or administration were among the reported injuries or fatalities, and classes resumed just four days later at a nearby college.  

However, many affected by these disasters are not so lucky. Those in areas that bore the brunt of the recent storms now begin the slow and complex process of recovering and rebuilding. During this time, as media coverage begins to fade and shift to the next big story, it is important to remember that the original emergency is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of preparing for and responding to the health needs of crisis and natural disaster victims.

In addition to the physical health implications, such as bodily trauma and infections, these types of events can also have a meaningful impact on mental health, including causing shock, anxiety, depression, and distress. The recovery process from a traumatic event can take months for many individuals—and for some victims, the effects last far longer and may even manifest into more serious and long-term mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Continuity of care is an important aspect of quality health care—especially for victims of traumatic events—and a vital pillar of the patient-centered approach that we as osteopathic medical educators look to impart on our students.

Each member of our community—the administrators, faculty, staff, and students at the U.S. colleges of osteopathic medicine—must continue to serve as leaders when confronting the myriad challenges that affect our nation’s health. Unfortunately, it seems that now more than ever this includes being prepared to face unforeseeable catastrophes. Perhaps that is something that can be garnered from the recent string of crises… the importance of maintaining a working emergency management and communications plan for our schools, as well as reevaluating the importance of disaster preparedness training in medical education.

If our charge is to improve the health of the American people, then it is up to us to consider the needs of the communities that we serve and shape our future physicians to be able to meet those needs. At the same time, we must also be prepared to face emergency situations at our COM campuses with plans in place that include coordinated responses to threats, identify key resources that may be needed, incorporate actionable communications plans, and ensure—to the best of the campuses ability—continuity of operations.

There is undoubtedly an urgent need for a high-quality physician workforce equipped to respond effectively to a mass disaster, and AACOM supports the consideration of disaster preparedness training in osteopathic medical education curriculum. Additionally, the Association strongly endorses the establishment of crisis management plans at the nation’s COMs to protect the members of our colleges and the communities they serve. We can never know what the next emergency will be, or when it will strike, but we can take measures to ensure that members of our community, and the future physicians we train, are prepared to effectively manage and overcome these crises.


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Vol. 1, No. 13
July 27, 2017