Post-Disaster Healthcare: Thoughts for Moving Forward

Our thoughts and prayers are with Houston and the surrounding cities, with Florida and Haiti, and now with Puerto Rico, as they begin to deal with the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. We celebrate their tenacity, mourn their losses, and know the rebuilding will take time. As we look on, recalling our own encounters with other hurricanes, we’ve begun asking ourselves some questions about post-disaster healthcare.

1. How might we as caregivers, even as highways have been closed, areas are flooded, and power knocked out, provide healthcare, including mental health care, remotely?

This is a question we need to begin exploring, not just in these instances but as we move forward. We have an opportunity to use technology to our benefit in times of disaster. Accenture has reported that 74 percent of patients want to receive care via remote visits, and these data do not even consider unusual circumstances. While electricity, telephones, and internet connections are foundational for providing this care today, tomorrow’s connected world makes this a reality in new and different ways. And, remote caregiving becomes even more possible when licensure is accepted across state lines; suddenly, our resources expand enormously.

2. How can we care for the caregivers who are on the front lines in the post-disaster healthcare arena, dealing not only with patients but also with their own family situations?

Whether working many days and hours in a row during the crisis or working in addition to managing their own family’s needs, caregivers’ needs are part of the equation that must be addressed. Caregivers, by nature, offer themselves even beyond what is healthy, especially in times of crisis. Often, weeks, months, maybe years go by before caregivers involved in the trauma of a disaster situation recognize their own needs; in the meantime, they have exhausted physical and mental reserves. We can help each other in these instances, being on the lookout for signs of distress, exhibiting compassion for each other in the process, recognizing we are all under pressure, and seeking help for ourselves or others. Any situation is potentially stressful when prolonged or continuing at an extreme level.

3. How can we, as caregivers, help our neighbors speak up to share what they need, whether that be food, clothing, and shelter or a listening ear and specialized help?

In times of trauma, regardless of the source, our most empathic response may be to encourage conversation. When we make situations psychologically safe, people are able to ask for what they need. We as caregivers have the opportunity and responsibility to create mental and emotional safe spaces so that our patients and families can receive what they need, whether the needs are tangible or intangible. In the context of post-disaster healthcare, we can also listen to what is said and what is deliberately not said in order to truly understand another’s perspective.

Whether you are in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, or supporting from afar, let’s begin to think about how we can use what we do in these situations to inform how we better provide care in the future. Blessings to everyone caring for and being cared for during these times of need.