Looking to Help in Haiti?

March 2010

Even months after the initial earthquake in Haiti, the country is still in desperate need of physicians. But if you're an American physician looking to help, the consensus from those who have been there already is not to go it alone.

Find a U.S. Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) or a reputable aid organization and go with them. If you insist on going by yourself, have a plan--and perhaps a local contact who can help you get from place to place.

Being part of an organized response effort has a lot of benefits, physicians who have been to Haiti said. For starters, it means that you're more likely to have access to needed supplies. It also means that you're likely to be set up in an area where patients know to find you, allowing you to reach the greatest number of people.

Logistics aren't the only reason to avoid being a one-man band in a disaster situation, said Dr. Frank McGeorge, an emergency physician from Detroit and a TV medical reporter. "It takes an enormous toll on you psychologically," he said. Without other physicians to talk to and debrief with, it's easy to become overwhelmed by some of the horrifying injuries you see, he said.

Emergency physicians planning to go to Haiti should also be prepared for the next phase. While Haiti continues to need physicians, it's not for the crush and trauma injuries that were seen in the first few weeks. At this point, be prepared to be a clinic doctor, said Dr. E. Jackson Allison Jr., a professor of emergency medical care at Western Carolina University.

"If someone does not see those people, [they] will overload the system," Dr. Allison said. "So, there is utility to having people who can see those clinic type of complaints."

Looking forward about 6 months, Haiti is likely to need plastic surgeons to revise wounds, orthopedic surgeons to correct fractures that didn't heal well, as well as prosthetists, and rehabilitation specialists, said Dr. McGeorge said. "Emergency physicians can do a lot of those things," he added.

There's also still a great need for medical certain supplies, such as IV antibiotics, said Dr. Melissa Barton, program director for the emergency medicine residency program at Wayne State University Sinai-Grace Hospital.

But if you want to make the trip to offer aid in person, Dr. Barton said don't hesitate. While she had heard many reports about violence in Haiti, she encountered no problems when she was there, and even found the hospital where she worked more controlled than many U.S. hospitals.

But she advised that physicians must be willing to accept uncertainty about what they will be doing. "Be flexible and adaptable," she said.

--Mary Ellen Schneider

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