What the Haiti Earthquake Built

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Photos by Cheryl Reed

How do you turn a massive health crisis like the Haiti earthquake into a medical journal article? The chaos following the 7.2 earthquake that killed more than 200,000, injured 300,000, and left hundreds of thousands more homeless was certainly not conducive to orderly collection of data. But the often-improvised responses of non-governmental organizations, health care centers and military operations to the earthquake hold important lessons for future emergency medicine efforts, wherever they may be needed.

That’s the message a team of physicians and scientists trumpet in an article published last week in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness on the Chicago Medical Response. A collaboration between 6 Chicago medical centers quickly forged in the days following the Haiti quake, the group united global health programs and volunteer efforts that were only loosely connected before the disaster. The resulting Voltron of medical/humanitarian response was able to respond more effectively to the Haitian crisis, argue the authors – which include Christine Babcock and Christian Theodosis, the point people for the University of Chicago’s Haiti team.

“Pooling common resources and drawing upon each institution’s natural strengths allow for a more seamless, sustainable, and comprehensive response to emergencies,” the authors write.

img_0079Putting such an effort together was not without its hiccups. While each medical center experienced a flood of volunteers as the immense toll of the earthquake became apparent, mobilizing that outpouring of support was not simply a matter of putting everyone on a plane and hoping for the best. Volunteers needed to be vetted for their language skills, experience with disaster medicine, and their specialty – especially important as the need on the ground shifted from trauma surgery to rehabilitation and physical therapy. For every physician, nurse or therapist that went to Haiti, someone back at home had to be found to cover their shifts. Costs associated with travel, supplies, and diverted attention at work also had to be addressed – the article estimates that over 1500 hours of staff and faculty time was dedicated to human resources alone, not counting any of the time on the ground in Haiti.

By banding together, the various hospitals could share some of that burden while pooling their connections. The University of Chicago, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and the University of Illinois at Chicago each had their own distinct global health initiatives in place, including unique partnerships with international NGOs. The wide menu of collaborators allowed the Chicago Medical Response to pour resources into several sites in Haiti, including the Love A Child orphanage and hospitals in Port-au-Prince. Sharing the load also expanded the volunteer pool, allowing more physicians or nurses from needed specialties or with helpful language skills to be located without straining the hospital schedules too badly.

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Christian Theodosis and Christine Babcock in Haiti

“Within the collaborative model, the medical staff of any single institution is less likely to become exhausted,” the authors wrote. “Vacancies on each team can be filled by partner institutions to allow for fluid and rapid deployment of teams with collaborative staffing and cost-sharing.”

Despite the on-the-fly construction, those involved with the Chicago Medical Response think it held up pretty well through the months that volunteers were being sent to Haiti. In fact, the authors hope that local rivalries will continue to be put aside to replicate the effort for future disasters, as well as for “global health development programs” bringing health care to the world’s neediest populations without being spurred via natural disaster. Because for all of the dollars and medical supplies that are sent a country’s way when tragedy strikes, nothing can compare to a hospital’s most valuable component, the authors write:

“In the response to the Haitian earthquake, the greatest collective asset of these academic medical centers was human resources.”

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If you missed any of our Haiti Relief coverage from earlier this year:

Field Hospital Haiti, a movie from footage shot by Cheryl Reed, our senior editor.

Video interviews with ER nurse Tiffany Cupp, orthopedic surgeon Rex Haydon, anesthesiologist Richard Cook, and pharmacist Dima Awad.

The U.S. Navy also played a large role in the medical response to the Haiti earthquake through the deployment of the USNS Comfort hospital ship. Matthew Wynia of the University of Chicago shared his experiences on the USNS Mercy, the Comfort’s sister ship, while responding to the tsunami of 2005.

The Haiti earthquake illustrated how providing medical care to poor countries more efficiently will require nothing less than the creation of a new discipline, argued Dartmouth president Jim Yong Kim.

About Rob Mitchum (526 Articles)

Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

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