Emergency departments around the country function as our nation's health-care safety net. We see patients with emergencies and injuries, take care of our nation's uninsured as well as those insured patients who can't see their own doctors in a timely manner or can't wait the weeks or months to get into a specialist. But did you know that emergency medicine is also an integral part to our homeland and national security?
A bipartisan congressional commission to prevent weapons of mass destruction found that it is not nuclear but biologic weapons that are the greatest terrorist threat we have today. A key component to keep Americans safe from this threat involves our emergency medical services and public health systems. Both the detection and response to biologic weapons will begin and end in your local emergency department.
With a biologic attack there mostly likely will not be an immediate impact because infectious agents have an incubation period so there is often a delay between exposure and illness. These weapons are not usually released in a "bomb" which would destroy the bacteria, viruses and protein toxins from the heat instead the release would be more insidious, resembling a natural outbreak.
Emergency physicians are trained to recognize illness patterns or syndromes that give diagnostic clues as to unusual infectious disease outbreaks. Clues might be that patients with these symptoms might all come in within a similar time frame or perhaps from the same geographic area or from the same event. Once these red flags are raised ER doctors then will report these unusual clusters to their local and state health departments which would begin to set in motion a series of events, such as release of stockpiled antibiotics, vaccines, anti-toxin and necessary medical equipment. As well as coordinate efforts with local, state and federal law enforcement authorities and emergency management agencies.
There are some things you can do for yourself and your family to be prepared for any type of national emergency. First and foremost keep informed. Now as social media is spreading, many state and local health departments have accounts you can follow on Facebook and Twitter for public health updates. Also many of your local public safety jurisdictions have something call "reverse 911." You sign up ahead of time for an automated notification system that will call and notify you in the event of a disaster, mass casualties, evacuation or quarantine.
The second thing your family should do is have a plan. Ahead of time sit down and go over potential evacuation routes, keep maps of the surrounding areas so you can find where emergency shelters will be potentially set up. Lear about the emergency plans for your children's schools. Set up several meeting places and make sure all family members know where to go in the event communications are disrupted from a disaster. Pick an out-of-state contact or out-of-area contact for your family and make sure everyone know who it is and how to get in touch with them.
Lastly prepare kits that you can quickly grab and take with you in the event of a disaster. A disaster supply kit should include water (3 gallons per person), canned and non-perishable foods (10 cans per person), as well as baby food and pet food. A 3-5 day supply of medications including over-the-counter pain medicines such acetaminophen and ibuprofen as well as anti-histamines. Include some personal hygiene items, extra glasses, baby supplies such as diapers. An evacuation kit should include a first aid kit, a battery powered flashlight and radio to listen for media updates and information on the emergency broadcast warning system. Use lithium batteries, which have an extended life of 5-7 years. You should also have all-important personal identification documents such as passports, birth certificates, driver's license, social security cards, list of bank accounts and credit card accounts. As well as important health information, copies of prescriptions, doctors' phone numbers, child's immunizations records, and a list of allergies. Include important documents such as deeds, insurance policies, stocks and bonds. Don't forget to also include spare care keys, signal flare, whistle, matches (in water proof container), chlorine bleach for a water sanitizing system, duct tape, plastic garbage bags, blankets or sleeping bags, rain or warm weather gear, non electric can opener, utensils or mess kits.
Another thing we can all do is to be advocates for our local emergency department. ERs today bear brunt of our health-care burden as our safety net; over-capacity emergency visits have increased an average of 3 million patients per year totaling about 120 million visits per year, yet hundreds of emergency departments have closed, leaving fewer facilities to see these patients. Real health-care reform must address the urgent needs of the 120 million emergency patients because even with enough primary care doctors there will always be emergencies. The viability of our emergency medical services in this country will ultimately affect everyone's access to care when it is critical, when minutes count and lives are at stake!