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Experts discuss the use of field hospitals and foreign medical teams

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sted in Issue 115 - April 2011 News from PAHO/WHO

In December 2010, 26 experts from the international humanitarian community met in Cuba to discuss the use of field hospitals and foreign medical teams during emergency situations. The meeting was organized by PAHO/WHO and included representatives from international organizations, NGOs, and other interested parties coming from the Americas, Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and other regions.

One of the objectives of this meeting was to review the PAHO/WHO guidelines on the use of foreign field hospitals that have been in place since 2003. The topics that were of most concern to participants were how to ensure that field hospitals or medical teams meet required standards and how to coordinate them so that they support national efforts.

The number of foreign medical teams mobilized when a disaster strikes has increased. For example, dozens of field hospitals and foreign medical teams were sent to Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake. The same happened after earthquakes that hit Pakistan (2005), Iran (2003), and China (2008). While they have been of great help in many instances, their deployment has been questioned because of timing, self-sufficiency, ability to adapt to local systems, and even the quality of their service.

A variety of related topics were discussed at the meeting, such as logistics and deployment, accreditation, quality of insurance, coordination, and level of health care provided.

The group made the following recommendations:

  • To continue using PAHO/WHO guidelines on foreign field hospitals as a reference, as long as the issue of foreign medical teams is included.

  • To support the process of global accreditation. The first step would be to encourage registration of medical teams that can help in case of sudden-onset disasters such as earthquakes.

  • To create minimum standards for foreign medical teams in case of disaster.

  • To encourage key actors who were not present at the meeting to participate, making the process more inclusive and transparent.

  • To emphasize that the ultimate objective of foreign medical teams is to support the work of national governments, not to replace them.

An ad hoc working group will develop a conceptual document that will include and expand on the main recommendations. This document will outline the next steps of the process.

The meeting in Cuba was the first step in what will likely be a long review process regarding the mobilization and deployment of foreign medical teams and field hospitals. For more information on this topic write to Jill Ceitlin at