What is Disaster Medicine?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2019
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Disaster medicine is an area of medicine which is focused on providing appropriate medical responses to disaster. Specialists in this field have training in a number of different areas which enables them to participate in disaster planning and preparedness, disaster response, and disaster recovery. Many governments have made investments in disaster medicine so that they can be better prepared to deal with disasters and emergency situations which may arise, ranging from terrorist attacks to earthquakes.

In a disaster, ordinary social norms and the infrastructure to which people may be accustomed tend to break down. Doctors who specialize in disaster medicine need to be able to provide a response under conditions such as martial law, lack of electrical power, lack of access to medical facilities, and so forth. Thus, disaster medicine plans ahead, working on developing tools such as mobile disaster units which can respond to a disaster scene quickly to set up tents for survivors, emergency rooms, operating facilities, clinic spaces, and so forth.

One aspect of disaster medicine is readiness and recovery. Many organizations and governments keep standing teams of medical professionals who are prepared to respond to disasters when they occur. These teams can mobilize rapidly, accompanied by equipment loaded in trucks, aircraft, vans, and so forth, bringing relief immediately. Many of these teams regularly practice disaster recovery scenarios, dealing with issues such as managing public health when sanitation services are not available, decontaminating people and areas, triage, and so forth.


In addition to doctors, disaster medicine also includes public health specialists, emergency responders, political leaders, and financial professionals. Responding quickly and appropriately to a disaster requires a great deal of coordination and effort, along with practice to ensure that people will know what to do when disaster strikes. Disaster medicine can also require a slightly different approach to the practice of medicine; when people lack sophisticated medical facilities, they need to be able to improvise, and they need to be able to think quickly on their feet.

Several universities have disaster medicine training programs which provide training in all areas of disaster medicine. Some of these institutions work with government agencies to set up response protocols and other programs, working on creating a large team of professionals distributed in all regions of the world so that they can respond quickly to emergency needs. Disaster medicine is also an area of interest for many militaries, as militaries are often involved in disaster response and relief efforts.


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