How can MDs treat patients impacted by wildfires?

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published August 28, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • As wildfires rage in Hawaii, MDs are called to tend to patients with serious burns and breathing issues. Wildfires can cause both short- and long-term health issues.

  • MDs on-site can help patients by having the right tools and resources on hand.

  • MDs should also have a trauma-informed skill set in order to help patients.

As recent wildfires rage in places like Hawaii and Canada, trained healthcare professionals (HCPs) are called upon to address the urgent needs of affected communities. In Hawaii, where over 100 people have died and more than 1,000 are estimated still be missing, MDs are treating patients with serious burns and breathing complications, among other issues.[][] 

Reza Danesh, MD, the founder of MODO MD (a Maui-based mobile care service), began using his unit to help patients impacted by the fires. According to NBC Los Angeles, the doctor received messages from local paramedics when the fire broke out. “I knew I needed to go activate MODO for the people…I filled up the van and just went out. I brought more trauma stuff, airway stuff, respiratory meds. I had no idea what I was walking into,” Dr. Danesh told the outlet.[] 

Others, like David C. Cho, MD, a plastic surgeon working on the island’s only intensive burn unit at Straub Medical Center in Honolulu, prepared for a deluge of incoming patients, he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Some patients—including those with burns covering up to 70% of their bodies—had to be flown nearly 100 miles to get proper care at the Center.[] 

In Canada, July’s wildfires put patients, especially those with existing respiratory conditions, at risk of long-term damage from smoke inhalation. Fires—from burning in the brush to those destroying homes—release particles and chemicals (everything from dioxins to acid gasses) that impact human health in various ways.[][] 

According to Science of the Total Environment, wildfire smoke and particulate matter are associated with all-cause mortality and respiratory morbidity. Wildfires often lead to inhalation of tiny particulate matter particles (PM2.5), leading to heart attack, stroke, lung cancer, and cognitive function problems, according to Yale Medicine.[][] 

How MDs can help patients impacted by wildfires

According to Robert Katzer, MD, Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, the best way physicians can help patients affected by wildfire is to contact organizations like the American Red Cross or local hospitals and healthcare coalitions. Through these organizations, you can provide funding or extra resources. 

“It is not recommended for anyone to travel to the affected area to be a physician on their own,” Dr. Katzer says. “That introduces other obstacles, including finding additional resources and shelter to support that individual. To best help, a large amount of equipment and medication is needed in order for physicians to work effectively.”

Dr. Katzer says that physicians planning on going to a disaster zone to provide medical aid should carefully consider a few key variables: “If [you] do not have a license to practice medicine in that state, [you] may be committing a crime for practicing without a license,” he says. “For those considering providing medical aid with an out-of-state license, it is crucial to confirm whether that state has declared a state of emergency or declared a disaster.”

When certain states declare a disaster, they may honor out-of-state licensures for HCPs coming to provide emergency medical care. Another resource MDs should know about is the National Disaster Medical System, which provides personnel, equipment, and supplies, as well as a network of partner hospitals working alongside state and local personnel to provide care at a disaster site. “Physicians can apply for one of those positions so they are able to support in a way that does not take resources away from the locals who are suffering as a result of the disaster,” Dr. Katzer says.

He goes on to say that MDs should know that disasters like wildfires are about acute emergencies as well as chronic health issues. “A disaster eliminates the infrastructure needed to provide chronic care to patients, including care for diabetes, blood pressure, psychiatric illnesses, and those who require dialysis,” he adds. “Often when a disaster occurs, these illnesses are exacerbated due to the disaster’s destabilization. All these needs are infrastructure and/or logistically intensive, and that is why it is recommended to donate money and time, if requested, to larger organizations that can provide these resource-intensive needs to that community.”

Dr. Katzer says that on-site MDs hoping to help impacted patients need to have a specific skill set: They need to know how to manage many chronic illnesses, and they need to bring large supplies of medications with them. “Usually, those who experience natural disasters lose their housing or leave all their medications behind when evacuating,” he says. It’s the little things—like a lost pair of eyeglasses, for example—that MDs will need to prepare for.

“You don’t want to be just a person on an island with a medical license,” Dr. Katzer says. “Rather, you want to have all the supplies and resources to be able to provide quality care.”

W. Lee Warren, MD, a board-certified neurosurgeon, says that his experience as a combat surgeon in Iraq has given him a unique understanding of how trauma impacts patients—including in the case of wildfires. 

“Many people who face physical danger or traumatic loss of loved ones and property will exhibit post-traumatic stress responses that can make them feel as if they're ‘going crazy,” he says, adding that HCPs need to be there to let them know it’s normal. 

“Physicians can come along to offer support by reminding people that these traumatic events will produce neurochemical changes in their brains, which will become physical and physiological changes in their bodies…Physicians should all develop a trauma-informed skill set,” Dr. Warren says.

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