Hurricane Katrina displaced nearly 6,000 doctors (mostly from New Orleans) and destroyed many medical records, a new study shows.

“We don’t know what this is going to mean to health care,” researcher Thomas Ricketts, PhD, says in a news release. “We’ve never had to deal with something like this before.”

Some doctors may retire or resettle elsewhere, and recreating lost medical records is going to be tough, he notes.

Ricketts is a professor of health policy and administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the deputy director for policy analysis at UNC’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

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Displaced Doctors

Ricketts’ study was done before anyone knew what Hurricane Rita’s impact would be.

“The nearly 6,000 [doctors] is the approximate number of physicians doing primarily patient care in the 10 counties and parishes in Louisiana and Mississippi that have been directly affected by Katrina flooding,” says Ricketts.

“Over two-thirds -- 4,486 -- of those were in the three central New Orleans parishes that were evacuated,” he says.

Broader Impact

Many more doctors were affected (if not uprooted) by Hurricane Katrina, according to Ricketts’ report.

By his count, there were more than 16,400 active patient-care physicians in all Gulf Coast areas designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after Hurricane Katrina. More than 2,700 other doctors in those areas were in residency training.

That puts the grand total of doctors in the region affected by Hurricane Katrina at more than 19,000.

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Lost Medical Records

Most health records in community health centers within New Orleans’ poorer neighborhoods were destroyed, says Ricketts in the news release.

“Reconstructing those records is really going to be extra difficult,” he says.

In Katrina’s wake, some doctors have been calling for health records to be stored electronically.

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Stop-Gap Measures

Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas took action after Katrina to keep doctors available.

Those steps include letting volunteer doctors help treat patients (especially evacuees). Louisiana’s governor also issued changes to the state’s malpractice liability laws as part of the public health emergency, notes the report.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Southeast Regional Center for Health Workforce Studies: “Hurricane Katrina Affects Nearly 20,000 Physicians -- Up to 6,000 Patient Care Physicians Displaced by Flooding.” News release, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.