Public health workers concerned about efficacy, impacting disaster response and relief

Brooke Sjoberg

Health care workers are reluctant to come to work during a disaster because they doubt their effectiveness in recovery and response efforts, said Johns Hopkins University professor Daniel J. Barnett in a lecture on Friday.

UT’s Center for Health Communication hosted a lecture in response to recent natural disasters around North America. Michael Mackert, CHC director and associate professor of advertising, said Barnett’s talk became more relevant and pressing in the context of what is going on with hurricane relief. 

“When we chose to invite Dan, we did not expect it to be as timely as it is,” Mackert said.

Barnett’s research shows health care workers, such as nurses, EMS and FEMA workers, are less likely to come to work if they perceive that a disaster poses a greater risk to them than any benefit resulting from their involvement, an idea Barnett referred to as response efficacy. 

“Long story short, my willingness to come work at a weather disaster may not be equivalent to my own willingness to come to work at a radiological disaster, or a ‘dirty bomb’ disaster,” Barnett said. “Our working hypothesis was that the leading reason someone would be unwilling to come to work would be concerns about acquiring (an) illness and transmitting it to one’s family … to our surprise (that wasn’t) the most important. The most important, actually, was response efficacy.”

Budget cuts to government programs also play into the issue of responders’ perceived efficacy, as adaptive trainings and staff are cut, Barnett said.

“The governmental public health infrastructure is generally underfunded, and there are multiple interlocking agencies, requiring public health agencies to do more with less,” Barnett said.

Biomedical engineering freshman Justine Le, a medical assistant with the Seton children’s clinic, said she recently experienced doubts of her own effectiveness while at work during Hurricane Harvey.

“Obviously, through Hurricane Harvey, we had patients that had to be transferred over to our hospital facility,” Le said. “I felt like I couldn’t help as much because my position wasn’t at the hospital, it was just the clinic, so there wasn’t much opportunity for me to help.”