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Disaster Medical Specialist


Disaster medicine is a fairly new specialty for doctors who want to be “first on the scene” of an emergency that involves mass injury or illness.

Physicians who specialize in disaster medicine also help hospitals and government agencies design effective disaster response and recovery plans.

The practice of disaster medicine focuses on three phases of response:

  • Pre-disaster planning
  • Patient triage at the disaster site
  • Transport and care of the victims

A natural disaster, like a hurricane or earthquake, or a man-made emergency, such as a train derailment or a terrorist attack, can involve hundreds or even thousands of victims.

Disaster medical specialists aim to minimize casualties from these incidents by reaching the site as quickly as possible, evaluating and stabilizing the victims, and evacuating them to health care facilities. They are trained to provide care “in the field” and to manage teams of health care professionals, first responders and volunteers.

Disaster medical specialists work in various clinical jobs when they are not deployed as part of a disaster response team. Such jobs can include primary care clinics and offices, emergency departments, specialty clinics, etc. The bottom line is that disaster medical specialists can come from any medical or surgical specialty provided they have the additional training that enables them to function in austere conditions under incredible pressure.

Note: David G.C. McCann, M.D., FAASFP, Chairman, American Board of Disaster Medicine, Tampa, FL, reviewed and approved by this career profile.

Working Conditions

Disaster medicine is, by definition, a high stress specialty. You never know when you will be sent to a scene or what to expect when you get there.

Some disasters, such as a building collapse, are “one time events.” The disaster medical team arrives after the catastrophe and deals with those who have been injured. Other situations, like an earthquake with aftershocks, can be ongoing. This increases the number of casualties, and puts the disaster medical team in danger, as well.

Disaster medicine isn’t clean and antiseptic. The pressure is intense. You have to be comfortable getting your hands dirty and making life-or-death decisions on the spot.

If the recovery work lasts several days, you may have to work long hours, catching sleep when you can on a cot or even the ground.

When disaster strikes, most people feel helpless and wish they could “do something.” Disaster medical specialists are the ones who save lives when the unthinkable happens.

Salary Range & Outlook

Most disaster medical specialists currently volunteer their time when disaster strikes. They earn their salaries by working a “regular job” as a physician, which pays $150,000 to $300,000.

Government agencies are increasingly focusing on disaster preparedness, particularly in the case of terrorist attack. Disaster medical specialists will be sought for salaried positions as program advisors and administrators, as well as first responders.

Academic Requirements

Disaster medicine is a newly recognized medical specialty, so there are not many programs focused specifically on training for this field. You must first complete college and medical school, then a residency in a medical or surgical specialty to become a medical doctor.

A specialized training and certification program in disaster medicine supplements your regular clinical training as a physician. Disaster Medical Specialist training can take various forms including classroom work, field training, military training and actual disaster deployments (i.e. “on the job training,” such as deployments in the National Disaster Medical System).

A board certification in Disaster Medicine is available through the American Board of Disaster Medicine.

Disaster medical specialists become experts in the rapid medical assessment of disaster victims based on the nature of the disaster. Crush victims require very different care than victims of a biological attack. You will also learn how to manage resources, coordinate care and communicate with the response team.

Experience, of course, is the best teacher. Disaster medical specialists are always needed, but not always paid. Volunteering as part of a disaster response team is the best way to practice and improve your skills.