Volunteer Health Professionals and Emergencies: Assessing and Transforming the Legal Environment
Biosecurity and Bioterrorism
Volunteer health professionals (VHPs) are essential in emergencies to fill surge capacity and provide needed medical expertise. While some VHPs are well-organized and trained, others arrive spontaneously at the site of a disaster. Lacking organization, training, and identification, they may actually impede emergency efforts. Complications involving medical volunteers in New York City after September 11, 2001, led Congress to authorize federal authorities to assist states and territories in
... territories in developing emergency systems for the advance registration of volunteer health professionals (ESAR-VHP). Through advance registration, volunteers can be vetted, trained, and mobilized more effectively during emergencies. The use of VHPs, however, raises multiple legal questions: What constitutes an emergency, how is it declared, and 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? This article examines the legal framework underlying the registration and use of volunteers during emergencies and offers recommendations for legal reform, including: (1) establish minimum standards to facilitate interjurisdictional emergency response, improve coordination, and enhance reciprocity of licensing and credentialing; (2) develop liability provisions for VHPs that balance their need to respond without significant fear of civil liability with patients' rights to legal recourse for egregious harms; and (3) provide basic levels of protections for VHPs harmed, injured, or killed while responding to emergencies.