Responding to Natural Disasters with Telepsychiatry





Katrina, Harvey, Dorian: record-breaking storms that left destruction and devastation in their wake. The aftermath of these natural disasters is not just monetary and physical though, they cause mental and emotional trauma as well. The loss of homes, family members, and stability takes its toll on survivors. One of the most significant challenges after hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, or floods is how to get proper medical care to patients. Medical facilities may be damaged or unreachable. As we face the aftermath of another storm, we should not forget that the wounds inflicted go beyond those we can see.

Telemedicine is helping to bridge that care gap by providing patients with an extended network of physicians accessible from anywhere.

High-stress situations activate the body’s flight or fight response. Almost everyone who experiences a natural disaster first-hand will feel the physical and psychological effects of this response. Research has shown that the prevalence of mental health disorders increases 2-3 fold after a disaster. Losing routine life, social support, and loved ones leaves people in a state of uncertainty and distress. If these are not addressed with proper care, they can lead to lifelong problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or drug and alcohol abuse. Implementing targeted mental healthcare is vital after natural disasters to help prevent long-term psychological stress.

People with pre-existing mental disorders are at greater risk after a natural disaster. They may not have access to their caregivers, physicians, medications, or even basic needs. Connecting these patients to providers is essential to their overall wellbeing. Doctors on the ground may not be equipped to care for these patients. Telepsychiatry offers a way to connect patients quickly with trained specialists, ensuring that their care can continue as uninterrupted as possible. Recognizing this need, companies have started offering free telehealth services to those affected by hurricanes Harvey and Dorian.

Telepsychiatry gets care on the ground faster

Damage to infrastructure can cause significant delays and hazards when trying to mobilize medical teams to disaster areas. People are often left without adequate access to food, water, or medical supplies. Getting medical teams and supplies in to fill these needs is crucial to saving lives on the ground.

Telemedicine brings a new way to bring vital care to people in disaster situations quickly, with little setup and few facilities required. If patients have access to a phone, computer, or tablet they can receive expert care around-the-clock. Tablets and laptops can easily be sent in with disaster teams and are a reusable resource for patients and physicians alike.

Virtual visits give patients 24/7 access to mental health professionals and can swiftly be integrated into medical care on the ground. This care access not only benefits patients but also has the potential to help prevent burnout for physicians on the ground.

Rebuilding Community, Enduring Care

Rebuilding can be long and perpetuates feelings of uncertainty and stress. Six months after Hurricane Sandy, 14.5% of adults were found to be suffering from PTSD. The same survey found that those who felt they had stronger social support displayed increased resilience. Telepsychiatry can give patients access to care and supplies a support system when they feel their lives have been turned upside-down. Mental health professionals can help survivors learn to recognize the symptoms of trauma and give them coping mechanisms to help manage these difficult situations.

Care and support must extend past the initial phase though. Mental health problems are one of the most common long-term effects of natural disasters. Communities take time to rebuild, and many people who are forced to leave their homes do not return. Those who are left behind face great challenges to rebuild not only their cities and towns but also their community. They also face a diminished support system. Telepsychiatry can help fill in this critical gap by providing continued access and continuity of care to survivors, helping them in the initial aftermath and in the long months to come. 

Continued access to mental healthcare is crucial to helping survivors rebuild. The ease of use and lack of equipment needed to set up and sustain telepsychiatry makes it ideal for communities facing the long process of rebuilding. Telepsychiatry makes providing mental health support possible in the aftermath of a disaster and provides enduring care to ensure patients can return to a normal, healthy life.

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