Preparedness for Allied Health Professionals: Risk Communication Training in a Rural State

Article excerpt

In times of disaster or crisis, all rural health workers, including allied health professionals, are potential first responders. Allied health professionals must therefore be well equipped to deal with the communication needs of the public during a crisis. To meet this need, the state health department in Kansas, an almost entirely rural state, conducted a risk communication needs assessment and message-mapping workshop in cooperation with the Consortium for Risk and Crisis Communication. Through a series of three focus groups, the state's most pressing communication needs were gathered in regard to agricultural, biological, and chemical/radioactive/explosive threats. Based on these needs, content was developed for a message-mapping workshop for 29 allied health professionals and emergency responders. Participants learned appropriate crisis responses to specific areas of concern. Workshop evaluations using a Likert-type response scale revealed that participants' knowledge of risk communication concepts increased to a significant degree following the message-mapping workshop. The risk communication needs assessment and message-mapping workshop represent an important beginning to addressing rural preparedness at a multiagency, grassroots level. Effective emergency response in a rural area depends on the preparedness skill level of allied health professionals as well as emergency responders. J Allied Health 2007; 36:72-76.

SINCE THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, the nation as a whole has faced unprecedented preparedness challenges. The country's rural areas, however, face particularly great challenges due to funding and personnel shortages, difficulties with training access, and limited infrastructure capacity.1-4 Such challenges contribute to higher responder and victim casualty rates in rural crisis response efforts5 and may undermine the ability of rural areas to respond effectively to a future crisis. It is therefore crucial to ensure that preparedness training efforts are made relevant to the rural health workforce6 so that the best and safest use can be made of response resources during a disaster or crisis.

One method of increasing the preparedness of a rural state or community involves training allied health professionals in tandem with traditional emergency responders. Previous research has confirmed the effectiveness of interdisciplinary training for ensuring the best response to rural health needs,4·7 although to date such methods have not been applied to preparedness topics. In rural states with sparse health workforces, however, allied health professionals often collaborate with clinical workers and physicians8 and may be called upon along with them to serve as first responders to a health crisis. It is therefore important to ensure that preparedness training efforts reach professionals in allied health fields as well as in medical and emergency response organizations.9

Risk communication, a system of delivering messages interactively during times of crisis, represents an important preparedness training area of need. This system provides a means for agencies to preplan media responses and thus communicate effective messages during a time of crisis without causing needless worry and fear.10 Risk communication methods have been applied in large cities in a generally successful manner during health crises11 and have been found to be a vital part of first response to the psychological needs of crisis victims.12 Rural areas are in particular need of training in risk communication methods due to the limited resources, greater reliance on distance-based communication, and greater response casualty rates previously mentioned.

Risk communication methods allow messages to be easily adapted for individual locations and scenarios. One such method is message mapping, a risk communication technique for visualizing and developing messages for the public during times of crisis or disaster. This method consists of identifying the public's or the media's potential questions during a disaster or crisis and then developing threefold organizationally appropriate responses to each question (three being the ideal number of supporting facts for communicating in a high-stress environment). …