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Biosecur Bioterror. 2007 Jun;5(2):155-63.

Terrorism, trauma, and mass casualty triage: how might we solve the latest mind-body problem?

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD 20814-4799, USA.


The global war on terrorism has led to increased concern about the ability of the U.S. healthcare system to respond to casualties from a chemical, biological, or radiological agent attack. Relatively little attention, however, has focused on the potential, in the immediate aftermath of such an attack, for large numbers of casualties presenting to triage points with acute health anxiety and idiopathic physical symptoms. This sort of "mass idiopathic illness" is not a certain outcome of chemical, biological, or radiological attack. However, in the event that this phenomenon occurs, it could result in surges in demand for medical evaluations that may disrupt triage systems and endanger lives. Conversely, if continuous primary care is not available for such patients after initial triage, many may suffer with unrecognized physical and emotional injuries and illness. This report is the result of an expert planning initiative seeking to facilitate triage protocols that will address the possibility of mass idiopathic illness and bolster healthcare system surge capacity. The report reviews key triage assumptions and gaps in knowledge and offers a four-stage triage model for further discussion and research. Optimal triage approaches offer flexibility and should be based on empirical studies, critical incident modeling, lessons from simulation exercises, and case studies. In addition to staging, the proposed triage and longitudinal care model relies on early recognition of symptoms, development of a registry, and use of non-physician care management to facilitate later longitudinal followup and collaboration between primary care and psychiatry for the significant minority of patients who develop persistent idiopathic symptoms associated with reduced functional status.

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