When disaster strikes: Involving GPs in disaster management planning

Amanda Lyons

9/03/2018 1:29:42 PM

GPs often play a limited role in healthcare planning processes for natural disasters, but Dr Penny Burns hopes her research will contribute to efforts to increase their voice.

GPs’ work in the event of a major disaster extends to long after flood waters have receded or the flames have died down.
GPs’ work in the event of a major disaster extends to long after flood waters have receded or the flames have died down.

Natural disasters have impacted more than nine million Australians in the past 30 years and often cause health effects that last long after they are over, including issues of mental health, chronic disease and substance abuse.
Given the widespread impact of natural disasters within Australia and the central role of general practices in community healthcare, GPs are key players during disasters – at ground zero and in the days, months and years that follow – even though they often do not play a major role in the disaster planning processes.
‘GPs are the eyes and the ears of the community when disasters happen, and yet we’re not linked in to what happens with emergency response,’ Dr Penny Burns, a GP with a special interest in disaster management and senior lecturer in the Department of General Practice at Western Sydney University, told the RACGP.
One of the major problems is that very little of the existing data about disaster management and response comes from general practice.
‘Most of our evidence comes from emergency departments, hospitals and population-based studies,’ Dr Burns said. ‘What that means is that when people look at where to put funding to develop [disaster management], it goes to those areas.’
However, Dr Burns believes this situation is beginning to change and hopes her current research, a project supported by the RACGP Foundation and entitled, ‘Roles for general practitioners in supporting comprehensive continuity of healthcare for their patients and local communities through disasters’, will help to continue that process.
‘I’ve spoken to GPs who have gone into collapsed buildings during earthquakes to pull people out, and another who, during a flood, set up a temporary clinic in a church because the whole area was surrounded,’ Dr Burns said. ‘I’ve spoken to GPs who went to another practice because theirs was demolished and others who rushed out to see patients in a paddock.
‘But this is all disconnected from systems and it is not safe.
‘What we need to do is to harness that wonderful commitment and energy, and knowledge of the local people, and bring that into the existing systems.’


Another issue specifically important for GPs is that their work in the community does not stop once the waters have receded or the flames have died down, but is ongoing – sometimes for years.
‘I recently spoke to a practice [that was involved in a disaster] and their work is still going, over eight years later,’ Dr Burns said. ‘During that time they’ve been seeing people whose pre-existing health deteriorated, who have developed new conditions related to the trauma and have had continuing issues around things like managing insurance.
‘To me, the real role of the GP is in that long-term recovery: we are frontline, comprehensive, do mental and physical health and we’re there for the long term, for the families and the community.’
In addition to her research, Dr Burns has also developed training courses and other resources for GPs, some through the RACGP independent learning program check, as well as teaching sessions for general practice students. However, funding is always an issue and she would like to see more provided.
‘Allow the research to provide the evidence to develop those [disaster management] systems, and then put those systems into policy and documents so that they carry on and are sustainable into the future,’ Dr Burns said.
Dr Burns’ ultimate goal is that her research work could help lead to the inclusion of GPs in comprehensive, sustained disaster and emergency response planning throughout Australia.
‘The aim is to see GPs at the table, in preparedness planning and during the response; liaising well with the other emergency services, not duplicating but adding to the care of the patient; and taking on that continuity of care when the emergency services leave,’ Dr Burns said.
‘That would be the absolute ideal.’

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Dr Peter j Strickland   14/03/2018 1:10:19 PM

I was the Joint service medical officer in the NT before, during and after Cyclone Tracy in Darwin in 1974, and ran one of the two major hospitals in the NT at that time the cyclone hit I would suggest that Penny Burns speak to me at some time about my experiences and recommendations on disaster management.

George Somers   8/04/2018 2:49:46 PM

I continue to practice in a Disaster Zone (the Dandenong Ranges) since the Ash Wednesday Fires, where calamity is always just around the corner. This keeps our team prepared. I have written a few papers on this subject.