Hurricane Sandy introduced the word “surge” into common use to explain the flooding of Manhattan and New Jersey. Storm surge is an offshore rise in water level caused by high winds pushing on the ocean surface. When added on top of tides, devastatingly high sea levels may result.
Medical Surge Definition
The real definition of surge is broader – “a sudden powerful forward or upward movement, especially by a crowd or by a natural force”. Today’s topic is medical surge, which often involves both crowds and natural forces. Officially, we define medical surge as “providing adequate medical care during events that exceed the limits of the normal medical infrastructure”. In plain English, medical surge means more patients than you know what to do with. Amusingly, Dictionary.com includes a usage example of “the onward surge of an angry mob” – perhaps a real concern if medical surge is not handled fairly and efficiently. Do you remember the high public anxiety during the 2009 pandemic flu? And that was a relatively small surge!
You’ll notice the definition doesn’t mention the cause of the surge or the types of injury and illness. That’s because the basic problem is always the same – how to provide adequate care when patient demand exceeds available staff, facilities, and equipment. Natural disasters, accidents, terrorism, illness – all can cause medical surge. What differs is our response. Surge impact depends on many factors (not in any particular order):
Number of patients in the surge. Duh! A multiple injury accident like a car crash might count as surge for a small hospital. Increase this to a mass casualty incident, like a plane crash or chemical spill, and any hospital needs surge plans, hopefully including coordination with other hospitals for overflow. Step it up further to catastrophic events like a nationwide pandemic or a 9.0 earthquake – I guarantee every aspect of healthcare will feel the pain.
Speed of the surge. Some public health emergencies occur rapidly (mass casualty incidents, chemical accidents, earthquakes, tornadoes), allowing minimal time to prepare or institute plans. Others develop over hours to a few days (floods, hurricanes, bioterrorism), and some advance “leisurely” over days or weeks (pandemic illness). Theoretically, this would allow time to adjust and carry out plans, gather resources, and pull in outside help, but only if resources and assistance exist elsewhere.
Advance warning of the surge. Even a few minutes warning might allow partial activation of emergency plans – if nothing else, seeking shelter, drop/cover/hold, or saving data (essential in the era of electronic medical records). Hours to a few days’ notice might allow full surge plan implementation, providing plans exist, including requesting deployable resources in advance.
Area affected by the surge. When medical surge affects only a single hospital, city, or county, near-by communities often loan assistance and resources, or take in patients. As the area expands, state and federal assets may kick in. However, if large regions experience a disaster (like the potential simultaneous earthquake predicted for Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and California), or the entire country becomes involved (like a pandemic or war), even federal resources may be inadequate, and communities must prepare to stand on their own.
Hospital versus outpatient care. Although hospital resources are limited, at least most hospitals are prepared. But what if the disaster or illness creates medical surge primarily in the “walking wounded” (or “walking ill”) category. These patients don’t require hospitalization. Unfortunately, many outpatient clinics have minimal or no emergency or surge plans. Although ambulatory care may be less urgent, we are also less prepared to provide it. Community physicians not only lack education on public health threats, but many have even lost first aid skills – normal physician practice includes sending wounded patients to the emergency room or using specialized staff for these “basics”.
Specialized patient needs. Medical surge requiring intensive care, surgical care, or burn care means specialized equipment (ventilators, monitors, operating rooms) and highly trained staff (nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists) – resources that are often limited or unavailable in some communities. On the other hand, surge plans might include caring for medical ward and post-op patients in alternative care settings, thus opening up hospital resources for more intense needs. The strategic national stockpile includes medications, antidotes, and vaccines, but obviously not for every disease or disaster, and not enough for everyone in the country. Even in normal times, medication shortages have become commonplace. Who knows what might be in short supply in a large surge?
Pediatric patients. Many communities currently delegate most pediatric specialty care to outside hospitals and specialists, and lack local expertise in surgical or even basic hospital level pediatric care. If pediatric specialty centers become overwhelmed in medical surge, expect mass pediatric care to be particularly problematic.
Workforce issues. Employees often stay home in medical surge situations because of personal illness, family illness, or childcare needs. They can be afraid of contagion, feel too stressed to help others, or be unwilling to separate from family in anxious times. Even disaster pet care prevents employees from working, particularly if shifts are long, or they cannot easily return home. Caring for an increased number of patients is problematic with full staffing. With staff shortages, the issue becomes critical. And it’s not just healthcare employees! Vendors, transportation, you name it – everyone needs employees to continue functioning. Our intricately interwoven healthcare system means that failure in any part will affect all others. In fact, medical surge effects extend beyond healthcare when employees stay home from other critical services, like sanitation, public works, gas stations, and grocery stores.
Infrastructure. Medical surge with intact infrastructure (pandemic, chemical, bioterrorism) is completely different from mass care without electricity, phones, water, and the internet (natural disasters). Intact roads, bridges, and public transportation are necessary for staff travel and delivery of supplies. With infrastructure failure, communication drops down to radios, satellite phones, and good old-fashioned person to person messages. Lights and equipment depend on generators. Hospitals beat clinics hands down in preparations for infrastructure problems, yet look at Bellevue and NYU in New York. Mass patient evacuations because of infrastructure failure!
Public fear and anxiety. An anxious public means lots of calls and visits to clinics and emergency rooms, even without illness – the “worried well”. Media, school, and workplace interventions to reassure and educate the public can help medical surge immensely, if they keep the worried well from unnecessary healthcare visits. On the other hand, inadequate or incorrect public information worsens the problem (and has even caused civil unrest in some countries). Public Information Officers are guaranteed employment in medical surge.
Advance planning. Hopefully it is glaringly obvious to every reader that medical surge plans are essential. If a major disaster or pandemic outpaces federal support, surge plans might be the only thing standing between health and massive deaths and injuries. Hospitals are making progress – I wish I could say it was altruism, but in reality, the major incentives are probably hospital regulatory and certification requirements, supported by state and federal guidance and money. On the other hand, clinics and healthcare providers are private entities with minimal regulations and no financial support for preparedness. Since surge planning takes time and money, don’t expect clinics to make it a high priority. Finally, the federal government has given public health departments the task of preparedness, while simultaneously cutting staff and funding (and no, I don’t work for public health) – how much can we really expect them to do?
What happens when medical surge hits without planning?
When significant medical surge is limited to your city or state, treatment could be delayed and you and your loved ones might receive care from a volunteer clinic or field hospital. You might have to put up with non-life-threatening or disabling illness or injury. Expect difficulty in refilling prescriptions or obtaining routine care. Despite this, you’ll probably be OK if you are healthy. Vulnerable populations, such as children, senior citizens, and the medically frail, will be the real victims, particularly when someone doesn’t actively advocate and hunt down care for them.
For a widespread severe medical surge, it’s anyone’s bet how bad the consequences could be. Current plans are definitely inadequate, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
You can help with medical surge planning!
Make individual and family plans. Identify reliable community information sources, including public health, 2-1-1, and dependable media. Don’t count on using your doctor for information during medical surge – save them for when you or family members are really ill. Keep a stash of over the counter meds, prescription meds, and first aid supplies at home. Stay on top of your health issues during normal times – don’t postpone routine appointments or tests. Keep a printed copy of your medical records with your emergency supplies.
Make plans for child, family, and pet care, so you can continue working. Not only will you earn money, but you will help your community continue to function. If your employer provides an essential service, lobby for emergency workplace family/pet care and employer-provided vaccinations. Oh – and make sure your employer has a real emergency and business continuity plan, or you’ll be out of a job even if you want to work.
Theoretically, we live in a democracy. Make public officials aware of preparedness concerns, and encourage adequate attention and funding. Ask questions of your doctors, clinics, and other healthcare providers about preparedness. Don’t accept vague answers about mysterious plans somewhere. If employees don’t know the clinic emergency plan, it can’t be much good.
Get involved now. The CDC Clinician Outreach and Communication Activity page is an excellent healthcare education resource, as is their Emergency Preparedness and Response page for the general public. For healthcare providers of any type, visit the Emergency System for Advance Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals page to learn about registering in advance with your state healthcare volunteer registry (credentialing before the need arises). Read my blog posts on CERT training and the Medical Reserve Corps for other opportunities to volunteer. Extra staff needed for medical surge must come from somewhere – volunteers are our only hope.
If you are really inspired, consider helping your clinic or public health department with surge planning. I’ve agreed to spearhead local public health efforts to develop a community wide pandemic surge plan. I’ve spent the past few years discovering healthcare preparedness gaps in our community (almost everything outside the hospital!), so now it’s time to try and bring all the players to the table and see if we can fix some things. I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but anything is better than nothing. Wish me luck.
Sheila Sund, M.D.
Guest author Sheila Sund, M.D. is a physician from Salem, Oregon focusing on Disaster Medicine. She is board certified in both Neurology and Hospice/Palliative Medicine. Sheila serves as Operations Chief and Medical Officer of the Marion County Medical Reserve Corps, and is spearheading local development of a community wide medical surge plan. She represents physicians on regional emergency planning teams, and educates healthcare, emergency planners, and the general community with her DisasterDoc blog and Facebook pages, as well as through public speaking engagements.