Escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea’s nuclear program have fueled concerns about the possibility of nuclear warfare, and a new study from the University of Georgia has found that American medical professionals are woefully unprepared to handle the needs of patients after a nuclear attack.
[Photo: Dr. Cham E. Dallas]
The researchers analyzed survey responses from over 400 emergency medical personnel in the U.S. and Asia to find out if medical professionals would show up to the site of a nuclear attack and, if they did, whether or not they know the appropriate treatment protocols. They published their findings recently in Frontiers in Public Health.
“I was not surprised that the responses from the emergency medical community were relatively poor in terms of knowledge and attitudes, because that’s what you get with radiation — myths versus reality,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Cham E. Dallas, a professor of health policy and management and director of the Institute for Disaster Management at the University of Georgia College of Public Health.
Over half of the respondents hadn’t received any formal education on issues related to radiation, and many thought that the immediate medical need after a Hiroshima-sized nuclear detonation would be thermal burns when, in fact, patients are more likely to need treatment for lacerations.
When asked to rank what type of disaster event would make them unwilling to come to work, respondents chose nuclear bomb.
“What we found was that medical personnel were actually more afraid of radiation than they were of biological or chemical events,” said Dr. Dallas.
Ironically, responding to radiological or nuclear events has historically presented no risk to health care providers.
This study suggests that emergency medical personnel, despite access to nuclear disaster training, view nuclear events with the same fear and misunderstanding as the general public. Dr. Dallas believes this may be because nuclear events are rare, and most providers have no firsthand experience. They fear what they don’t know.