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Preparing for the storm 

The weather is one of those things that is often complained about – but severe weather can have extremely serious consequences for those living with long-term, chronic or life-threatening conditions.
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In times of inclement weather and disruption, it is important to be prepared for any eventuality, particularly if medical treatments and routines are likely to be affected. Image: stellar001|123rf

The UK is relatively fortunate. Weather events tend to be fairly rare and restricted to occasional flooding, storms that cause significant damage, heavy snow or high winds. Disruption tends to be localised and relates more to travel and personal safety. The need for whole communities to evacuate is uncommon, although not unknown.

However, globally severe weather events are more commonplace and can have a significant impact on many aspects of everyday life. In some cases, people may have to be evacuated before, during or after severe weather and remain away for some time. Or they are confined to their homes for extended periods of time.

What effect can that have on those who are subject to ongoing, life-saving medical support, such as regular cancer treatment or dialysis?

Severe weather events can prove to be especially dangerous for cancer patients; in addition to disrupting routines necessary for treatment and recovery, a such patients’ severe weather preparedness plans may be drastically different from those recommended for those not receiving cancer treatment. People who receive life-sustaining dialysis treatment can also find their treatment regimens interrupted by flooding, power outages or evacuation. 

So, what should people do if severe weather is forecast? Primarily, patients should plan ahead. Sensible suggestions include making sure all medical devices and mobile phones are charged in case of a power cut and contacting doctors and the place that provides their treatment to understand the plans – and they should not assume their appointments have been cancelled.

If you need to evacuate, immediately contact your doctor to locate clinics and resources in the area you plan to evacuate to, prepare a list of medications you are taking, and keep bottles of medication that you can show to a pharmacist, should you need to repeat the prescription while away from home.

Having the simple things sorted can really help when confusion reigns and patients should know their doctor’s name and have it correctly spelled, and check whether they can get in touch with them during the storm? Furthermore, they should make a note of exactly what they are being treated for and which medications have been prescribed, including which of those medicines they need to take regularly and which ones are on an as-needed basis. In addition, having copies of medical records is hugely helpful information for any temporary medical teams who may take over patients’ care. Lists of medications and medical records should be stored in a waterproof bag.

If patients need to go to a shelter during the storm, they should inform the staff about their diagnosis immediately and ask whether they need to be transferred to a medical shelter or provided with certain resources designated for immunocompromised individuals. If travelling through any contaminated area or floodwaters, medical attention should be sought immediately.

You should evacuate if it looks like flooding is imminent. The threat of flooding can increase anxiety and begin a negative flow of events for patients so they should plan to leave if symptoms suddenly become unmanageable at home and contact their physician to discuss options immediately.

Let’s not forget either that the weather itself can be the cause of increased health difficulties and not just for those with existing or longer-term conditions. Heatwaves in Australia have tested the ability of the country’s hospitals to cope with severe weather events.

A thunderstorm asthma outbreak in Melbourne was linked to eight deaths and 8,500 hospital admissions and was a vivid example of the health impacts of extreme weather. Such events can be life-threatening, especially for the aged, obese and critically ill.

During the 2014 heatwave in South Australia, Adelaide became the hottest place on the planet. Heart attack rates increased by more than 300 per cent. Other emerging extreme weather health risks in the country include asthma from bush fires, increasing waterborne and other vector diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and typhoid, dehydration and heat exhaustion. This added layer of difficulties puts pressure on patients and the healthcare services that support them, which are often not the patients’ local hospitals.

In 2009, one-in-100-year storms left thousands stranded by floods, many of them elderly and seriously at risk. People needing urgent medical treatment had to be sent up to 80 kilometres away. Most recently, after super-cell thunderstorms blacked out South Australia, generators failed at an Adelaide hospital and patients had to be transferred.

And what of medical staff? We may sometimes forget that they are human too, and subject to the same dangers and issues the weather poses.

When severe weather strikes, hospitals and medical centres need to make sure their staff are looked after. Safe and comfortable accommodation should be arranged for those who can’t commute safely – this may be on site or working with local hotels – as well as food and essential hygiene, clothing and other items. Child care must be considered for those who may have to leave their families to stay on site and provide ongoing care during the emergency.

In many places across the world, making these sorts of preparations and being ready to provide uninterrupted medical care and support during severe weather, or supporting those already on site during these times, is the norm rather than a novelty.

And it is thanks to these sorts of preparations and plans that the medical care patients receive during those challenging episodes – whether it’s their ongoing treatment plan for a chronic or life-threatening illness or an issue caused by the weather itself – can usually go on with limited disruption, no matter the weather.

This blog is provided by Q-bital Healthcare Solutions, a CRJ Key Network Partner.  

Ruth Wozencroft, 30/07/2019
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