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Can US Healthcare System Handle Large Bioterrorist Attack?

A doctors' group in the United States says a large-scale biological attack against the American people could quickly overwhelm the country's healthcare system. The American College of Emergency Physicians says that is because the nation's hospitals have been reducing emergency services during the past decade.

The doctors' group says the nation's healthcare system has handled the current scare of anthrax exposure through the mail well. But, American College of Emergency Physicians' President Dr. Michael Carius says if dozens or hundreds of people in a community needed treatment quickly, it could be a problem.

He says during the past 10 years, the number of emergency departments nationwide has declined by 20 percent, while the number of people seeking emergency care has risen by 14 percent.

"What we have really lost is the elasticity in the system, and the reason why that is so important right now is that any bioterrorist event could easily push us over that break," said Dr. Carius.

The group says many hospital emergency departments have closed because of the high cost of treating patients who lack health insurance. Additionally, thousands of nurses and medical technicians have changed careers because of low pay and poor working conditions.

The emergency physicians group is holding its annual meeting in Chicago.

It says another problem treating illnesses from a biological attack is being able to recognize such illnesses, and realize when patterns develop within a community.

"I am a heart attack-gunshot-car accident doc. Been doing that for a long time," said Dr. David Hogan, an emergency doctor from Oklahoma City. "I do not think like an epidemiologist. Now I have to. Part of what we need to do is train our paramedics and our ER [emergency room] docs and our ER nurses and critical care people who are out there holding the front line how to think like an epidemiologist."

The doctors' group says one possible solution is to give public health authorities the ability to gather data on patient cases and symptoms on a daily basis, and look for patterns within a community. Dr. Jonathan Burstein of Boston says the new threats to Americans' health mean some new long-term thinking is needed in the medical community.

"Right now if anything happened, people are so suspicious and so prepared that we would jump on it instantly," he said. "We need to be able to maintain that level of alertness five years from now without giving everybody an ulcer because they worry constantly. It has to be ingrained instead of a level of anxiety."

A study of 30 U.S. hospitals, by the doctors' group, found only one had stockpiled medicine needed to fight a biological attack. And, the majority of the hospitals surveyed could only handle 10 to 50 biological casualties at a time.

The group says it is asking the U.S. government to allocate more money to local efforts to prepare for such an attack and treat its victims.