Veterinarians vital to disaster relief efforts

AVMA, AMA encourage them to help humans, animals
Published on May 18, 2010
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In times of mass human casualties following catastrophic natural or man-made disasters, veterinarians and veterinary technicians may have a role to fill in providing lifesaving human health care services during recovery efforts. 

Take, for example, what happened in the wake of Hurricane Rita in September 2005. The large animal teaching hospital at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine in College Station was converted into a special needs human shelter where veterinary college students, staff, and faculty helped care for 320 patients from Houston and Galveston.

University staff emptied the hospital of all its animals, then cleaned the building and made it ready for human use in less than a day. At its peak on the night before the hurricane hit, the facility housed about 650 people, including patients, families, and caregivers.

Recognizing incidents such as this, the AVMA approved a policy regarding the potential role of veterinary medicine in human health care following major disasters involving mass human casualties.

The Committee on Disaster and Emergency Issues submitted the proposed policy to the AVMA Executive Board at its April meeting.

The policy, "Addressing the Role of Veterinary Medicine in Human Health Care Following Catastrophes Involving Mass Human Casualty," says that veterinarians' training in emergency management, wound care and treatment, and pharmaceutical and medical supplies and their public health knowledge can be used to augment the capacity of the human health care system.

Furthermore, the policy encourages state and national authorities to recognize and validate the opportunity for veterinarians to be a supplemental source of knowledge and skills for human health care during these catastrophic emergency response situations.

The care of human patients by veterinary professionals during a mass casualty event falls under the category of "altered or modified standard of care," according to a 2005 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Such modified standards are implemented when "the delivery system is unable to respond (even if only temporarily)."

The American Medical Association's National Disaster Life Support Education Consortium Executive Committee has already recognized the need to engage all medical professions, including veterinarians and veterinary technicians, in mass casualty events to provide additional personnel and resources. The AMA's Basic Disaster Life Support course has recently been expanded to include a curriculum for veterinary professionals.

The background to the Committee on Disaster and Emergency Issues' recommendation said that the AVMA, through its vision and forward thinking, has always stood as a leader in veterinary disaster and emergency issues.

"With its unique collaboration between private organizations and governmental agencies, the AVMA, along with the AMA, have the opportunity to further the nation's response readiness and create safer, more resilient communities," according to the background.

Also included, but only in the background, were five action items the AVMA could consider. They are as follows:

  • Direct AVMA staff to review legislation that pertains to use of veterinarians and other health professionals when altered standards of care are necessary.
  • Appoint an AVMA representative to appropriate entities, such as the AMA's National Disaster Life Support Executive Committee, to assist with implementation of this policy.
  • Collaborate with organizations when feasible and encourage the development of appropriate training programs for veterinarians.
  • Establish communications with appropriate entities to address legislative and educational issues as well as to inform them of the capabilities of veterinary infrastructure in response to a catastrophic event that may require their services.
  • Communicate with the AVMA membership as to educational opportunities and possible roles of veterinarians in a catastrophic event.

To see the full policy on the potential role of veterinary medicine in human health care following catastrophes involving mass human casualties, click here.