General practitioners are integral in any disaster response

Dr Penny Burns, disaster medicine, disaster response, RACGP award
5 October 2021

It was a visit to her parent’s home in the Rocky Mountains of the USA, in 2000, when Dr Penny Burns first realised that general practitioners (GPs) weren’t included in disaster response.

“There was a huge wild fire that engulfed the small rural community where my parents live. The disaster response process was a text book example of how to safely evacuate.”

Dr Burns continues, “But what struck me was that the local GPs treated the situation like nothing major had happened. I also noticed that they weren’t included in any of the conversations about how to get the community back on their feet. Being a GP, this made absolutely no sense to me.”

Upon returning to Australia, Dr Burns realised that the lack of GP participation in the conversation around disaster planning and response also existed.

When the devastating bushfires of 2009 swept through Victoria taking 173 lives, this time Dr Burns was on the ground in a professional capacity to provide support and guidance to GP groups. Her role was to help them work out what they needed.

“A number of GPs lost their practices. Yet they had to pull themselves together, set-up and see their distressed patients. It’s typical for people to head to their GPs first, during or after a disaster, because it’s a place of safety.”

“There are still waves ongoing from the Victorian bushfires that will send people to see their GP. It’s so important that GPs are equipped to deal with managing these scenarios during and after a disaster.”

Since the Victorian bushfires, Dr Burns has championed the need to bring GPs into the conversation but it hasn’t been an easy road.

“Early on, some of the most senior GPs with great influence didn’t see a place for GPs in disaster management and recovery.”

“When the Swine Flu arrived in May 2009 I realised that GPs were very unsure of how to respond to a pandemic. At the time a few key people from the Department of Health decided to convene a GP Roundtable to bring GPs into the conversation. This led to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) putting out a Flu Kit, which was strongly aligned with the Commonwealth Response.” 

Since 2014 the inclusion of GPs in disaster planning has started to increase at the local, state and national level. The RACGP revised its Pandemic Flu Kit and rolled out an education campaign to the GP community. When the COVID19 pandemic hit in 2019, GPs were in a much better position to respond.

“We’ve come a long way but there’s more that can be done. I’d love to see GPs written into the systems of disaster response. It would be good to see the role of the GP articulated, the communication chain outlined, and their networks outlined.”

When asked what her top three tips are for GPs in a disaster, Dr Burn advises, “Firstly, create a 1-page plan of what you’re going to need and do. Being prepared certainly helps in the middle of a disaster.”

“Secondly, think about your own limits and boundaries. GPs need to pace themselves and take time out when needed so they can get through the long haul.”

“And finally, get connected to the key groups you’ll be working with whether that’s in the health care arena or within the community. Being socially connected during a disaster is exceptionally important and will pay off both during and after the disaster.”

When she’s not writing research papers as part of her PhD under the supervision of Professor Kirsty Douglas, or teaching, or administering COVID19 vaccinations at her GP practice, Dr Burns continues to investigate ways to improve how GPs respond to disasters.

“The COVID19 pandemic has been useful in highlighting the key role that GPs play and has led to the formation of several GP groups, like the National COVID19 Evidence Based Taskforce, of which I’m a part. These type of groups ensure that GPs are provided the best guidelines based on evidence to operate during a disaster.”

All of Dr Burns’s efforts were recently recognised by the RACGP who awarded her the ACT/NSW Faculty Award for Service for her “tireless work in NSW/ACT, Australia and internationally as a disaster medicine practitioner, researcher, policy maker, and educator and as a passionate advocate for GP involvement in disaster planning and response.”