Ensuring That Patients are Prepared for Emergencies

Paul Biddinger, MDBy Paul Biddinger, MD

Third in a series of articles in support of  the month-long Mass. Dept. of Public Health project, “Together We’re Ready – Massachusetts Prepared.”

When an emergency or disaster occurs, our patients can suffer, not just from the event itself, but also from the subsequent disruptions to access to medical care that disasters often cause.

Therefore, just as we support and protect the health of our patients with preventive health strategies such as wearing seatbelts and smoking cessation, so too should we be working with our patients to help make them more resilient in the face of emergencies and disasters.

There are several ways in which physicians can help their patients mitigate against the adverse effects of disasters.

First, we can encourage patients to maintain a copy of their updated medical history and all present medications.  They should be advised to keep these records and any other health related documents, such as health care proxies and insurance information, in a safe and accessible location.

Second, patients should be encouraged to make a habit of reviewing their medication supplies before anticipatable events, such as blizzards and hurricanes and try to work with their pharmacies and insurers to ensure an adequate supply of medications to last through the event.  Underscore the importance of having necessary prescriptions and medical supplies in case pharmacies are closed or medical equipment deliveries are disrupted.

Third, they should be alerted to the importance of having a good home emergency plan that includes provisions for food, water, environmental protection, and other considerations that will make them less vulnerable to emergencies.  Resources for home emergency planning can be found at www.ready.gov.

Lastly, communication is often one of the biggest problems commonly encountered during an emergency. Make sure your patients know the best way to contact you and what they should do in case they cannot.

Physicians who provide care for patients with chronic illnesses, cancer, or other special healthcare needs should emphasize the need to maintain existing medication and treatment regimens.

It is also helpful to discuss plans for how a patient would continue critical treatments, such as chemotherapy or dialysis, if the patient’s current treatment facility is closed or they need to evacuate.  Patients with an illness or disability are more likely to be vulnerable in an emergency.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has compiled a number of resources for individuals  with special healthcare needs  that can be shared with patients and caregivers.

Taking the opportunity to talk about medical preparedness with your patients now will help ensure they know what to do should a disaster strike.

Dr. Biddinger, a practicing emergency physician, is the Medical Director for Emergency Preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital. He also serves as the Director of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Exercise Program (EPREP) at the Harvard School of Public Health and is chair of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Committee on Preparedness.

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