Disaster medical teams vital resource for enhancing pandemic response

Medical teams that assist at the scenes of earthquakes and torrential rain disasters have also been dispatched to combat the novel coronavirus. Their activities must be examined to reconsider forms of disaster medical care.

Japan established a disaster medical assistance team (DMAT) system in 2005 based on lessons learned from the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. About 15,000 doctors, nurses and others have voluntarily signed up, and they are dispatched to affected areas to provide medical assistance immediately after disasters occur, at the request of local governments and other entities.

In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, they provided medical assistance at hospitals affected by the tsunami and transported hospitalized patients from evacuation zones after the nuclear power plant accident. DMATs have also been mobilized to assist after flood disasters and major accidents, including the 2005 derailment accident of the JR Fukuchiyama Line and the torrential rains in western Japan in 2018.

From saving patients’ lives to managing the health of evacuees, DMATs can handle various situations because of the field experience they have accumulated. It can be said that they have become an indispensable presence at the scenes of disasters.

Although it was not envisioned that DMATs would have to deal with an infectious disease such as COVID-19, the scope of their activities was expanded when then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested a team to be dispatched in January last year to help returnees from the Chinese city of Wuhan.

When a cluster outbreak occurred among passengers and crew on the cruise ship Diamond Princess, a DMAT established a coronavirus treatment system, designating hospitals according to the severity of the patients’ condition. They have also visited hospitals and elderly care facilities across the nation to support infection prevention measures.

Disasters and the coronavirus pandemic share common aspects. For example, many patients have to be cared for simultaneously. The process of discussing and deciding on solutions with local doctors and nursing staff is also the same.

DMATs are currently being utilized as an emergency measure against the rapid spread of the virus. The central and local governments must clarify anew the role of such teams and the scope of dispatch requests.

Many issues need to be resolved if DMATs are to be mobilized in the event of future pandemic outbreaks. A team member was infected during activities on the cruise ship. Training to ensure safety is necessary.

DMAT members normally work at general hospitals. They do not receive a special allowance when they are dispatched in times of disasters. The government must consider providing insurance for injuries sustained during deployments and offering hazard pay.

There is a limit to how much we can rely on volunteerism. The government needs to train medical personnel to be dispatched in the event of an emergency, and take command of the doctors, nurses and other personnel who assemble from all over the country at emergency sites.

The Self-Defense Forces have dispatched doctors and nurses to assist during the coronavirus pandemic. They have meticulous training in infection prevention measures and organizational skills. On the other hand, the DMAT system is a large network of medical personnel. The strengths of each must be utilized to make effective use of their life-saving activities.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 13, 2021.