“GPs are this silent voice: we are in the community, we are the eyes and the ears of the community when these things happen and yet we’re not linked in to what happens.”

Australians are all too familiar with the sudden threat of natural disaster. With a broad range of landscapes and weather patterns within Australia, many of us will be affected by or know someone who has been involved with a natural disaster in some form.

With the annual forecasted cost of natural disasters expected to reach $39 billion by 20501, heatwaves, fires, storms, flooding, cyclones and drought have had a massive impact on our communities:

  • Between 1852-2011 at least 951 people were killed by floods;

  • Preliminary accounts of the January 2014 heatwave in Victoria point to significant health impacts including 203 heat-related deaths;

  • In the years between 1987 and 2016, over 9 million Australians have been directly affected by heatwaves, bushfires, floods, storms and earthquakes.

As the leading GP research foundation in Australia, the RACGP Foundation believes that we have a responsibility to the Australian community to provide every GP with the skills and research to enable them to provide the best possible health outcomes for every Australian.

Currently, the research on disaster response mainly relies on the data collected from hospitals and emergency services. RACGP Foundation researcher Dr Penelope Burns believes that GPs can provide insight and knowledge on how individuals recover and seek treatment after disaster has struck.

It is in her research on disaster response, while completing her PhD through the ANU Medical School Department of General Practice, that she has been able to open up the dialogue of what GPs can do to aid the emergency teams.

Dr Burns states:

"GPs are amazing people; they are individuals, they are spontaneous and when a disaster happens they all rise to the purpose in their own different ways.

"There are several roles that GPs may play in disasters, and they vary. In the rural areas, the GP is much more likely to be involved in response because they may be the only person there for a couple of hours, of the area may be cut off, so they may need to be involved in acute response and a lot of our rural GPs do that anyway in terms of car crashes; and they may be involved through the hospital, they may end up going and helping in the hospital."

The affects of disaster have an overwhelming effect on mental health and financial burden. With the annual cost of mental illness in Australia estimated at $60 billion2  and the natual disaster costs forecast to grow at 3.4% per year1,  it is clear that the effect from natural disasters is long term. 

In this traumatic time for families and individuals, our health system needs to be coordinated so that people are provided with the best possible service, from the very day disaster strikes, through to long-term recovery.

Current Australian and state government spending on direct recovery from disasters is around $2.75 billion per year, compared to funding directly for natural disaster resilience of approximately $100 million per year.1

Our research is working towards implementing a solid plan for GPs in disasters. Training sessions and educational resources are just some of the ways that we can prepare GPs for their role when disaster strikes. However, the RACGP Foundation is looking for more ways that we can bridge the patient care gap from immediate emergency response to long term GP care. It is in this gap that patients’ healthcare is potentially most at risk.

“That’s what GPs do: we’re frontline, we’re in the community, we’re comprehensive, we do mental and physical health and we’re there for the long term, and we’re there for the family and the community.”

We believe that we have a duty of care to provide every Australian with a disaster response that is speedy, robust and continues to support them well after the disaster has subsided.

Our goal is to provide more research funding so that our disaster response is well informed and our patients can trust that they are receiving the best possible service. If you wish to donate to the RACGP Foundation please call us on 03 8699 0497.

We're always looking for partners who want to create a healthier Australia. To find out more about the RACGP Foundation's work, or how you can partner with us to create a healthier Australia, visit foundation.racgp.org.au/foundation

  1. Deloitte Access Economics. Building resilience to natural disasters in our states and territories. Sydney: Australian Business Roundtable, 2017
  2. National Mental Health Commission. Economics of Mental Health in Australia. Melbourne University, Melbourne 2016