Medicolegal Issues

Limits for Disaster Responders


Most healthcare providers are inexperienced in caring for people in disasters. However, in a national disaster that hinders mobility both into and out of an affected area, available skilled personnel are limited. A disaster response asks more of the scarce manpower: Providers must work longer hours and extend their customary scope of expertise to aid the largest number of victims. While these mandates are designed to maximize the care provided, the emotional and physical burdens on providers and victims in these circumstances are significant, and it is important that we remember the fundamental duty to prevent unnecessary harm in the provision of healthcare.

Should healthcare providers be held to different standards in times of disaster? If so, what are acceptable limits to disaster care, and what ethical dilemmas result during such exceptional times?

Unique Circumstances Call for Unique Standards of Care

Standards in a variety of areas differ in the face of a large-scale disaster, but the fact that standards must change to accommodate the circumstances does not mean that they cease to exist entirely. In the event of a large-scale disaster where populations become isolated and no new resources will arrive in the immediate future, the risks of inaction are magnified and we accept a higher risk resulting from relief action. When only one doctor is available, that doctor is obligated to provide whatever care he or she can to whoever is in need.


Who was the first employee of SHM?

Answer: Angela Musial now SHM’s director of communications

When the alternative is that no help will be given, any able doctor should provide whatever help they can. However, there are limits to this responsibility. Greater risks may be justified, and standards may be different, but physicians’ fundamental duties to patients are unchanged and avoidable mistakes causing injuries still need to be prevented. The basic duties of beneficence and non-malfeasance must still guide physician behavior, and the reality of the circumstances in disaster response favors pre-emptive determination on the safety limits that physicians should observe in providing disaster assistance.

Disasters inherently influence doctors to both continue to provide care when they are impaired by sleep or grief and to provide care that under other circumstances they would consider their experience inadequate to undertake. These are realities of disaster response, and all skilled personnel can and should exceed the limits that normally exist in a fully functional system with adequate resources. However, at some point a doctor becomes too impaired or too inexperienced to provide care to patients—even if no one else is available. Doctors are neither trained nor encouraged to weigh the global risks and benefits in this manner; in fact, we are trained to push ourselves beyond our reasonable limits even when absolute scarcity of resources isn’t an issue. People are quite willing to compromise their own comfort and safety in the event of a disaster, but there comes a point at which they may do more harm than good.

There is extensive evidence that sleep deprivation impairs judgment and performance in the medical setting.1-2 Despite the fact that standards change in emergencies and greater risk must be undertaken by both providers and victims, there must still be safety limits. At some point a doctor becomes so sleep deprived that he or she is more dangerous providing care than leaving people entirely without a provider, and further may have impaired judgment on the severity of the various conditions they are facing and the reasonable limits on their expertise. This problem is inherent to the setting. How much risk should doctors subject patients to? In the face of a life-threatening condition should a completely inexperienced physician undertake care? What if the doctor is mistaken as to the severity of the illness or the proper response to it?

Public Policy MARK THE DATE

SHM members: Register for Legislative Advocacy Day online at

In response to Hurricane Katrina, state and national regulatory agencies had to create emergency exceptions to licensing regulations and to HIPAA and EMTALA requirements in order to facilitate patient care.3 Both the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act (legislation designed to serve as template for states to use to create emergency health response mechanisms) and the Louisiana legislation that governed provision of medical care in a state of emergency limit liability of any provider assisting in an emergency.4-5 Providers assisting in an emergency will not be held liable for any injury resulting from action or inaction except for intentional or grossly negligent acts or omissions. Such limitation of liability is essential to ensure that all available resources are utilized in an emergency. However, given that patients will have limited remedies for injuries caused, it is increasingly important to proactively define limitations on provider activity during emergencies. Because other remedies and regulatory structures are relaxed, ethical self-regulation becomes increasingly important.

The first priority in emergency disaster response must be ensuring that providers are available and do not encounter unnecessary barriers to providing care to ill or injured patients. However, a secondary goal must be ensuring that the safest and most effective care is provided under the circumstances. As with many things in disaster response, once the disaster has occurred there is little time for contemplation. Therefore, disaster response plans should include guidelines for providers on how to ensure safety in the care they provide.

Disaster response issues must be dealt with proactively because resources cannot be diverted to these issues in the thick of emergency response. Some organizations and providers have experience with disaster response and can provide guidance. A major goal of medical relief organizations is to provide relief for fatigued providers. When relief is not available and not likely to arrive soon, providers should be encouraged to self-impose sleep periods despite the apparent urgency of the situations they face. Urging providers to ensure that they eat at least twice and sleep for two to four hours in any 24-hour period is a reasonable limit on the physical activity of providers.

Providers and patients need to understand that this is essential to ensure that providers are capable of giving safe care in a sustained fashion. Emergency responders must maintain adequate perspective on their own abilities and patients’ needs to ensure that unnecessary risks are not undertaken nor avoidable injures inflicted. Importantly, these limitations should not be legislated or imposed externally, but should be defined by the profession and self-enforced by providers.

There have been significant discussion of what aspects of the U.S. system of response to large-scale disasters need to be improved. The Katrina disaster has given us the opportunity to enhance essential response mechanisms, whether the cause of the disaster is natural, infectious, or terrorist. A good disaster plan takes steps to ensure availability of care, but also to ensure that the care is as ethical, safe and effective as possible.


For additional information on SHM chapters visit and click on “Chapters.”


  1. Arnedt JT, Owens J, Crouch M, Stahl J, Carskadon MA. Neurobehavioral performance of residents after heavy night call vs after alcohol ingestion. JAMA. 2005;294(9):1025-1033.
  2. Landrigan CP, Rothschild JM, Cronin JW, et al. Effect of reducing interns' work hours on serious medical errors in intensive care units. N Eng J Med. 2004;351(18):1838-1848.
  3. Hyland, et al. Federal, State Regulations Relaxed for Providers Affected by Hurricane. BNA Health Law Reporter. 2005;15(36):1190-1191.
  4. Gostin, LO, Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, §608 Licensing and Appointment of Health Care Personnel, December 21, 2001. Available at Last accessed Dec. 1, 2005.
  5. La. R.S. 29:656 (2005).


Make a Positive Difference in the Politics of Healthcare

SHM to sponsor Legislative Advocacy Day on May 3

By Eric Siegal, MD, committee chair

“The stakes are too high for government to be a spectator sport.”

—Barbara Jordan, former U.S. Congresswoman

SHM is taking advantage of its 2006 annual meeting location in Washington, D.C., and sponsoring its first Legislative Advocacy Day on May 3. The Public Policy Committee is excited about the opportunity this initiative presents for hospitalists to learn more about how government really works and to speak with members of Congress about issues that are vital to patient care and clinical practice.

Are you concerned about continued Medicare cuts? Worried about how pending pay-for-performance legislation will affect hospitalists? SHM members registering for Advocacy Day will meet with their members of Congress and staff to discuss these and other important issues affecting hospital medicine.

I encourage you to register for Advocacy Day. There is no better way to influence how health policy is made in Washington than by meeting directly with your elected officials and their staffs. Lawmakers need constituent input to be effective legislators. Whether your legislator is a newly elected representative or a veteran senator with years of experience, he or she wants—and needs—to hear what you have to say about issues under consideration by the U.S. Congress, particularly in an election year. Input from their constituents always receives attention and consideration and can frequently make the difference in the way a lawmaker votes. Who better to educate members of Congress on changes to Medicare than the physicians directly involved in caring for the program’s beneficiaries?

We will give you the tools and information you need to make the most of your meetings on Capitol Hill. Legislative appointments will be scheduled by SHM as part of the registration process. SHM members will be grouped together by congressional district for House meetings and by state for Senate meetings and each registrant will have a minimum of three Hill appointments. To familiarize you with SHM’s legislative objectives for the second session of the 109th Congress, Laura Allendorf, SHM’s Washington representative, and I will conduct a pre-visit breakfast briefing from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. on May 3. This briefing will cover procedural tips on how to have a successful meeting and update you on the status of the key health issues you will be discussing while on Capitol Hill. These meetings will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. that day.

Join us on May 3 and help educate members of Congress about the unique role hospitalists play in the delivery of medical care in our nation’s hospitals. We hope Advocacy Day will be the start of regular contact by hospitalists with their elected representatives in Washington.


Northern California

Fourteen attendees representing six hospital medicine groups were present at the Northern California chapter meeting on Sept. 14, 2005. The presentation “Community Acquired MRSA” by Richard DeFelice, MD, was excellent. He presented up-to-date material, and the subject brought the attendees together, further solidifying the need for collaboration among different hospital systems and groups. The interactive discussion became so engrossing that we were not able to include the live agenda items. They will be continued with our next general membership meeting. Recruitment and best practice guidelines will be addressed in the near future.

Pacific Northwest

With 50 hospitalists in attendance the 2005-2006 Pacific Northwest chapter was initiated Sept. 22, 2005. The evening began with an excellent talk by Robb W. Glenny, MD, professor of medicine and physiology and biophysics, head, division of pulmonary and critical care medicine, University of Washington Medical Center, on treating PE/DVT. This aspect of hospital medicine is key to patients’ well-being and decreases morbidity and mortality. The audience appreciated his remarks and they anticipate implementation of his recommendation to local hospitals.

The 2005-2006 chapter officers are President David Weidig, MD, [email protected]; Vice President Kent Hu, MD, [email protected]; Secretary Janice Connolly, MD; and Treasurer Eric Raman, MD, [email protected].


Rocky Mountain Chapter

“Updates in Acute Stroke Management" and “Stress the Patient, Not the Doctor: Cardiac Risk Stratification for the Hospitalist,”

Jan. 26, 2006, 5-9 p.m.

Location: TBA

Pacific Northwest Chapter

March 23, 2005

Time TBA

Location: Washington

St. Louis Chapter

“An Evidence Based Approach to Managing Acute Coronary Syndromes”

Feb. 21, 2006, 6:30 p.m.

Location: TBA


CME, Pediatric Core Curriculum on the Horizon

Multiple initiatives keep committee active

The Pediatric Committee at SHM is both the center of pediatric activity within SHM and a clearinghouse for SHM committee and task force activity as it relates to pediatrics.

The major pediatric activity in SHM continues to be CME activities and the Pediatric Core Curriculum. The dramatic success of the Pediatric Hospital Medicine Meeting was documented in the October issue of The Hospitalist (p. 33.)

Evaluations of the meeting overwhelmingly favored staging a three- to four-day Pediatric Hospital Medicine meeting on an annual basis during the late summer as a stand-alone meeting, with sponsorship rotating among SHM, the AAP, and the APA. There was insufficient lead time to offer a comprehensive meeting in 2006, but a meeting is scheduled for 2007 sponsored by AAP, with SHM taking the lead in 2008. More information to follow both in the SHM online discussion communities and through these committee reports.

The Pediatric Core Curriculum is nearly complete and should be at the review stage by early 2006. This curriculum is modeled after the adult core curriculum. It will serve as a framework for residency and fellowship directors, as well as a basis for the topics addressed at the Pediatric Hospital Medicine Meetings. Thanks to Tim Cornell, MD, Dan Rauch, MD, and all the authors and editors who have contributed to this work.

We will offer a full pediatric track in May at the SHM Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., as we have in prior years. Registration is available online. Meetings of both the Pediatric Committee and the Pediatric Forum will be held during the meeting. This year’s meeting immediately precedes the PAS Meetings in San Francisco, and we encourage you to plan early so that at least one member of your program is able to attend the SHM Meeting. Once the Pediatric Hospital Medicine Meetings are held on an annual basis, we will need to decide how to balance SHM meeting offerings between the summer stand-alone Denver meeting and the SHM Annual Meeting.

The second function of Pediatric Committee involves having pediatric representatives on the various SHM committees and task forces report on their individual group’s activities, particularly as it relates to pediatrics. This keeps the broader group of pediatric leadership within SHM informed about the society’s global picture. SHM is committed to having a pediatric representative on each committee. You never know when or where an important issue for pediatricians may arise. Even geriatrics overlaps with pediatrics with regard to both family-centered care and proxy decision-makers.

Major endeavors at this point include the activities of the Benchmark and Career Satisfaction groups. SHM continues to make a strong effort to collect and generate data for workload and compensation, and to provide specific “pediatric only” subsets. Efforts regarding credentialing, sub-specialty designation/certification, and board re-certification are an active focus of SHM for adult hospitalists with ongoing discussions with the Board of Internal Medicine. We pediatricians stand on the sidelines of this battle, with the expectation that once the adults figure out how to do it, we can modify their approach with lower casualties on both sides.

The clinical Resource Rooms on the SHM Web site are clearly targeted toward adult topics. We intend to develop similar resources for pediatrics and are exploring possibilities of doing this collaboratively with the AAP and the APA. Sub-committees on pediatric hospital medicine topics are developing under a loose and shared structure with the AAP’s Section on Hospital Medicine. For example, SHM has taken the lead on a palliative care task force. Maggie Hood is the pediatric representative to this task force and wants to involve other interested pediatric hospitalists in a sub-committee on this topic. The AAP’s Karen Kingry has taken the lead on developing a sub-committee for community (pediatric) hospitalists; membership on her committee is open to SHM members. Expect other topics to develop as well.

If you have any comments, feedback or suggestions for the SHM Pediatric Committee, please contact co-chairs, David Zipes ([email protected]) or Jack Percelay ([email protected]). TH

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