Doctors step up for patients in the wake of disasters

Doctors can help patients cope with the physical and emotional trauma that often follows disasters.

From devastating hurricanes and fires to acts of terrorism and mass shootings, there’s been no shortage of disasters in the headlines. But there's also been no shortage of doctors stepping forward to help.

In fact, doctors play a role in responding to those disasters and in helping their patients to cope with the trauma that follows.

In the aftermath of disasters created by both nature and man, family physicians can help patients deal with the physiological effects of trauma on the human body and psyche, writes Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, M.D., who practices family medicine in Nashua, New Hampshire, in a blog post for the American Academy of Family Physicians.

“It is important to have a network of resources that can help the patient in a multidisciplinary fashion,” Ramas writes. Family doctors see the effects of trauma in daily encounters with patients, she says, adding that she has seen a rise in gastrointestinal complaints and more patients with insomnia, anxiety, chest pain and dizziness in her clinic.

RELATED: Hurricane Harvey brings stories of hero doctors, lost practices and homes

In addition to caring for their own patients impacted by disaster, a grass-roots network of doctors delivered medical supplies to their counterparts in Puerto Rico, according to a Kaiser Health News report. The network, which got its start among doctors helping in hurricanes that hit Houston and Florida this fall, has tapped into private jets belonging to corporations, sports team and individual donors in order to get aid to clinics in Puerto Rico, often before federal assistance arrived.

Doctors are also part of disaster medical assistance teams, or DMATs, that responded in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes, writes Michael T. Hilton, M.D., in a Medscape piece that describes how to become a team member. “Providing care as part of a DMAT is an important public service and is rewarding, exciting and challenging,” Hilton says.

And while doctors play a healing role for others, they aren’t immune to the effects of disasters themselves.

For example, the floods that followed Hurricane Harvey in Texas forced nearly two-thirds of the doctors in the Houston area to temporarily close their practices. Many physician practices suffered major damage, and some doctors reported losing everything but the outer shells of their buildings.