America's physicians are assuming a slightly different role since Sept. 11, moving quickly to the front lines in the war against bioterrorism.
Led by the Chicago-based American Medical Association, organized medicine has mobilized its considerable arsenal of personnel and professional skills to help the nation address the largely unanticipated dangers of chemical and biological warfare, officials say.
Timothy Flaherty, M.D., chairman of the AMA's board of directors, addressed the concerns of the profession and the grim realities of life in America after the Sept. 11 attacks when he joined a bipartisan group of politicians and medical leaders last week at a news conference in Washington.
"As we face this difficult crisis as a nation, I am not here to tell you all's well," said Flaherty, a radiologist from Neenah, Wis. "What I can tell you is that America's physicians are working very hard to deal with this new, quickly evolving public-health crisis. If there is a bright side to this challenge, it's that physicians are accustomed to the evolving nature of medicine."
The AMA, among the first national groups to caution against overprescribing antibiotics in the wake of anthrax deaths, has a special disaster-preparedness Web site with up-to-date information on anthrax. It also has co-sponsored two satellite broadcasts on the topic with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Hospital Association, as well as highlighted a series of articles published two years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the potential use of anthrax, botulism, plague and smallpox as weapons.
"While these articles were published in 1999," said Flaherty, "they take on a new relevance in 2001."
The gathering on Capitol Hill was attended by Flaherty; Sen. William Frist (R-Tenn.), who is a physician; Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.); and Jordan Cohen, M.D., president of the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Frist and Kennedy unveiled legislative plans to ensure that bioterrorism training is included in medical school curricula. The AMA, the AAMC, the American Nurses Association and the American Public Health Association all pledged to work on the bill.
"Everything changed in America on Sept. 11-everything," said Cohen. "For the (AAMC) and its colleague organizations representing health education, medicine, public health and science, the tragic events of that day and the uncertainty that's followed have resulted in new priorities and new responsibilities to help safeguard the health of our nation."
As part of a program called "First Contact, First Response," Cohen's group is hosting a Nov. 28 conference of health-education organizations in Washington to develop resources for physicians and medical residents who are likely to be the first to encounter victims of terrorist attacks. He said he expects the organizations to create a Web site and extensive printed materials. Officials at the conference also will work on Frist and Kennedy's legislative effort.
The AMA, its state affiliates and other national medical groups have created a wide range of initiatives to help educate-and treat-the public here and abroad.
The 37,000-member Texas Medical Association, for instance, announced plans last month to create a task force to study the issue and help doctors prepare for attacks.
The task force will be led by Ronald Blanck, D.O., former surgeon general of the U.S. Army and now the president of the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. It will hold its first meeting within days, officials announced.
"This won't be a task force that spends months studying the topic and then issues a final report to gather dust on shelves," said association President Tom Hancher, M.D. "I expect these leading physicians and scientists to produce immediate action items for us to implement following every meeting."
The National Medical Association, a Washington-based group of black physicians, also has put its membership on alert and is helping to provide information on the diagnosis and treatment of anthrax and other potential bioterrorism threats.
In Georgia, the state medical association will host a bioterrorism-preparedness conference Nov. 15 that will feature John Watson, an FBI special agent and coordinator for weapons of mass destruction.
Meantime, the AMA introduced a declaration against the production of biological weapons when top officials attended the recent annual meeting of the World Medical Association in France. The resolution, presented in early October, urged countries around the world to establish effective measures to minimize the potential for a catastrophic attack with biological weapons.
In its declaration, the AMA condemned the use of biological weapons as "morally and ethically reprehensible" and called on 76 countries represented by the WMA to establish tougher new control measures against those threats.
Flaherty and other top AMA officials said the organization will play a lead role in international educational efforts on biological weapons and terrorism. After meeting for four days in Chicago last month, the AMA's 20-member board of trustees made plans to provide about eight hours of bioterrorism-related programs and seminars at its midyear House of Delegates meeting in December in San Francisco.