General News — 09 January 2013
GPs brace for mental health impact of heatwave

GPs are bracing for ongoing mental health consequences of a nationwide heatwave despite heaping praise on emergency services that had so far done “everything you could humanly do”.

As bushfires raged and temperature records tumbled in several states, general practices remained on high alert but said well-resourced emergency services were ensuring people with respiratory and other short-term fire-related illness were receiving treatment.

But those caught up in treating patients affected by the fires have warned it is the delayed effects that would require ongoing medical attention once the heatwave and fires had settled.

“The most obvious [illness] is respiratory,” said Paul Kregor, practice manager of Sorell Medical Centre, one of the first medical outposts for people escaping fire-affected south eastern Tasmania.

“There’ve been all sorts of situations with telegraph poles and power poles burning, trees and fence-posts. All those sorts of things when they burn… release cyanide into the air. There’s bound to be some instances of respiratory infection and respiratory conditions arising. The smoke’s been very heavy.”

Mr Kregor said the fire hit “catastrophic” levels on Friday and people may not feel the effects for up to 10 days so “we’re keeping a watching brief”.

Other short term effects included loss of scripts as a result of property damage and minor burns, including on firefighters.

However Mr Kregor said his medical centre was already planning for longer-term fallout as residents grappled with property loss. He was in talks with the government-funded telephone support service Lifeline about setting up a temporary facility in the same building.

“In time there will be some issues of trauma and mental health and those sort of things,” he said.

“We’ll be looking to be a first port of call on that side of things. We’re looking to refer to appropriate authorities.”

“Just about everything you can think of has been thought of. Emergency services have been fantastic.”

AMA president Dr Steve Hambleton agreed that while the short-term health effects appeared to be under control, doctors must remain vigilant about the longer-term consequences.

“It’ll be the heat-related illnesses, it’ll then be the respiratory illnesses because of all the dust in the atmosphere, the next thing you’ll see is the mental health-related illnesses and post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

He said the mental health difficulties could be similar to those experienced after the 2011 Queensland floods “but with the fires your house is not even there, it’s a pile of ash and that’s devastating. All the family photos are gone, all your memories are gone.”

As first appeared in Medical Observer, 9 January 2013

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