Docs at Front Line of Terror War.
Are we prepared?
Preparing for the Unknown continued...
"If we define preparedness as being prepared to take care
of tens and hundreds of patients, then hospitals are not prepared, and it will
be difficult to ever be prepared because they have a hard time meeting the
patient load they see every single day," Levitin tells WebMD. "We can't
handle the flu, let alone think about handling a bioterror event."
Before last fall, Levitin says federal domestic preparedness
programs for healthcare professionals focused on how to deal with large-scale
biowarfare with high numbers of casualties.
Bioterror: Spotting the Signs
The biggest difference between biological agents and
conventional weapons of war is that the germs that cause potentially deadly
diseases can spread long before any telltale signs appear, making them
virtually impossible to detect before the damage is already done. And the first
to respond to a bioterrorist attack is likely to be a healthcare provider
rather than a police officer or firefighter.
Before 9/11, many physicians were unaware of the signs of
diseases such as anthrax and smallpox -- likely targets for terrorist use.
Experts say that's now changed.
"What happened was that people went from being totally
ignorant of these [bioterror] issues to being informed as to where to get
information," says infectious disease specialist Jon Temte, MD, PhD,
associate professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin.
Temte says primary care and emergency room doctors now have
much better access to information about potential bioterrorist agents provided
by organizations such as the CDC and the American Academy of Family Physicians
He says a focus group conducted among physicians six months
before 9/11 showed that many felt they wouldn't recognize the signs of anthrax
or know how to contact the public health department about it. But another
survey six months after 9/11 showed that while some doctors said they might not
be able recognize an isolated anthrax case, they would recognize a cluster of
cases. And they said they knew how to contact the proper authorities.
Temte says those findings also reveal one of the major problems
facing the U.S. healthcare system in addressing bioterrorist threats and other
major public-health concerns.
"We have a pretty well-trained physician force across the
country," Temte tells WebMD. "But the gaps ... have to do with the
perspective we take. Doctors are still oriented to the individual rather than
the community. I think that is a perspective that needs to change."