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Volunteer Health Professionals May Face Legal Risks

Legal Issues Need To Be Resolved Before Emergencies Arise

SEPTEMBER 22, 2005 -- Baltimore, MD -- As we have seen over the past several weeks in the Hurricane Katrina disaster, volunteer health professionals can be essential in emergencies. They can supplement the efforts of medical professionals on the ground and provide needed medical expertise.

But while some volunteer health professionals are well-organized and trained, others may arrive spontaneously at the site of a disaster. They may lack organization, training, and identification, and they may actually impede emergency efforts.

After September 11, 2001, Congress authorized federal authorities to assist states and territories in developing emergency systems to register volunteer health professionals in advance. Through advance registration, volunteers can be vetted, trained, and mobilized more effectively during emergencies.

Use of volunteer health professionals, however, also raises some legal questions:

  • What constitutes an emergency? How is it declared? What are the consequences?
  • When are volunteers liable for their actions?
  • When may volunteers who are licensed or certified in one state legally practice their profession in another state?
  • Are volunteers entitled to compensation for harms they incur?

In an article published in the current issue of Biosecurity and Bioterrorism titled "Volunteer Health Professionals and Emergencies: Assessing and Transforming the Legal Environment," authors James G. Hodge, Jr., Lance A. Gable, and Stephanie H. Cálves of the Center for Law and the Public's Health of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Georgetown University Law Center, offer recommendations for legal reform to address these questions.

The article first examines the current legal framework underlying the registration and use of volunteers during emergencies. Among the suggestions for improving the system are:

  • establish minimum standards to facilitate interjurisdictional emergency response, improve coordination, and enhance reciprocity of licensing and credentialing;
  • develop liability provisions for volunteer health professionals that balance their need to respond without significant fear of civil liability with patients' rights to legal recourse for egregious harms; and
  • provide basic levels of protections for volunteer health professionals who are harmed, injured, or killed while responding to emergencies.

"Volunteer Health Professionals and Emergencies: Assessing and Transforming the Legal Environment" by James G. Hodge, Jr., JD, LLM, Lance A. Gable, JD, MPH, and Stephanie H. Cálves, JD, MPH, appears in the September issue of Biosecurity and Bioterrorism and is available at The journal is published for the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

Further information can be found at the website of the Center for Law and the Public's Health at:

The Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) works to affect policy and practice in ways that lessen the illness, death, and civil disruption that would follow large-scale epidemics, whether they occur naturally or result from the use of a biological weapon.



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