New Study Says Nurses Helping in Natural Disasters Need More Training

Nurses helping in natural disastersBy Erin Wallace, Contributor

In many areas of the country, nurses helping in natural disasters is quite common. This can either be through coordinated efforts or nurses can provide physical, mental and emotional care on a volunteer basis. Regardless of the type of help they provide, nurses can be affected professionally and personally from their involvement.

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Ways nurses helping in natural disasters can prepare

A recent report published in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship explored, from the nurses' perspective, “what the challenges and resources were to carrying out their responsibilities, and what the implications are for nursing education and preparation for disaster.”  It found that many nurses have limited experience dealing with natural disasters. It also suggested that education on disaster preparedness should take place more often in nursing schools and include more hands-on exercises, low-tech options to address power losses and specific policies on nurses' individual roles in disaster relief.

Prepare to be impacted emotionally and physically

Catherine Burger, BSN, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC at, cites an example of California wildfires as a time when nurses provided disaster relief to victims.

“Although nurses are amazing, they are still human. Disasters can affect them on a personal level when they are providing care to victims. For example, in the Camp Fire of Paradise, CA, this past November, nurses found themselves mustering incredible courage as they gave care and comfort to evacuees, even as their own homes were burning. Studies show that disaster care can change how a nurse views gratitude and the need to support the communities they serve,” says Burger.

Ajaypal (Ajay) Randhawa, a clinical instructor at San Joaquin Valley College's Respiratory Therapy program, worked with student volunteers to provide relief during the 2018 California wildfire season, one of the deadliest on record.

According to Ryan Smith, the Communications Manager of Ember Education, Ajay “helped students immediately assist displaced individuals with respiratory issues. They used whatever tools they had in the field such as a stethoscope to listen to lung sounds, hand-held respiratory devices to check oxygen levels and other [vital signs].”

These types of student volunteers can often help nurses with assessing the status of patients and taking them to a more isolated area if they require further care.

Prepare to volunteer locally

Victoria H. Raveis, PhD, research professor and director of the Psychosocial Research Unit on Health, Aging and the Community at NYU and one of the authors of the Superstorm Sandy study, said in a recent NYU press release that “All disasters are local. The nurses we studied lived and worked in communities directly impacted by the storm.”

Nurses who were interviewed for the study were concerned about their family's welfare and worried about their own personal losses, even while assisting victims of the hurricane.

“When both personal life and professional life are impacted by an adverse event, as occurred in Superstorm Sandy, stress can exponentially increase,” says Raveis. “The responsibilities associated with the profession of nursing add additional demands that increase the risk for role conflict when a disaster occurs. Despite this conflict between work and family responsibilities, the nursing staff at NYU Langone put their personal needs aside, clearly demonstrating their commitment and professionalism.”

The study showed that nurses who provide care for patients during natural disasters experienced significant losses of their own — 25 percent of nurses experienced property damage or losses, and 22 percent had to relocate following the storm's impacts.

Some nurses experienced impactful personal consequences: 5 percent reported having disturbing thoughts, and 4 percent had difficulty sleeping.

Implications nurses helping in natural disasters should consider

Rebecca Park, RN and founder of the natural health resource, reminds nurses that they need to take care of themselves on the job.

“During times of crisis, each nurse should know their own limits and what lines they are willing and unwilling to cross when it comes to maintaining professional integrity,” says Park.

“Being [on] the front lines, nurses willingly subject themselves to diseases, injury, sleepless nights, physical and emotional stress, exposure to toxins and physical danger.”

Another consideration Park mentions that many nurses may not think about is the legal ramifications.

“Professionally, nurses need to think about the legal implications of their actions, even during times of crisis. Is there an assurance that they will not be subjected to lawsuits for negligence or malpractice, especially during times when resources are low?” asks Park.

Nurses should check with their affiliated organization or hospital in charge of disaster relief to ask them if there are any existing policies to protect nurses in these situations.

So long as natural disasters keep affecting communities, nurses will be on the front lines providing top-quality patient care. It's important for them to be aware of the impact providing disaster relief can have on their personal and professional lives.


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