Caregivers and families in medical special needs shelters: an experience during Hurricane Rita.

INTRODUCTION: Local public health departments may assume responsibility for sheltering and providing care for medically needy populations displaced by disasters. In addition, medical special needs shelters will inevitably house persons not requiring medical assistance. The presence of nonpatients may help or hinder shelter operations. This analysis examines the composition, demographics, and medical requirements of a population in a special needs shelter.

METHODS: Frequencies and ratios were used to describe persons residing in a medical special needs shelter. All data were obtained from registration records from the city of Austin’s medical special needs shelter, established in response to Hurricane Rita in 2005.

RESULTS: The medically needy accounted for 58.4 percent of the shelter population. For every 100 patients, the shelter housed 71.2 nonpatients. The most common nonpatients in the shelter were family caregivers (13.1 percent), followed by dependent children (8.0 percent). Most professional caregivers were associated with some type of group facility.

CONCLUSIONS: Sheltering a medically needy population means caring not only for patients but also for their accompanying caregivers, family, and dependents. Non-medically needy persons utilize shelter capacity and require different resources. Shelter staffing plans should not rely heavily on assistance from accompanying caregivers; instead, they should assume a substantial proportion of shelter capacity will be dedicated to non-medically needy persons.