Disaster Medical Specialist - How to Become a Disaster Medical Specialist

Disaster Medical Specialist

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Disaster Medical Specialist Overview


Disaster medicine is a new specialty for physicians who are required to be the first on the scene in the case of a disaster, or an emergency where masses have been injured or have fallen ill.

One of the primary tasks of disaster medical specialists include helping government and hospitals devise an effective disaster response and prepare recovery plans after the effects of the disaster have subsided.

There are three phases to the practice of disaster medicine. The first phase is the pre-disaster planning. The second phase is the patient triage at the disaster site. The final and ultimate phase is the transport and care of the victims.

A disaster medical specialist can belong to any medical or surgical specialty as long as they have the ability to provide immediate health care under tremendous pressure and in the light of catastrophic circumstances.




Disaster medical specialists deal with calamities that stem from both natural and manmade causes. Examples of natural disaster include a hurricane or an earthquake. Examples of a manmade emergency include train derailment or a massive inferno.

The objective of a disaster medical specialist is to minimize the number of casualties as much as possible. They are trained to provide health care services in the field with limited health care resources. Normally, disaster medical specialists are designated the role of managing other health care professionals who are involved in disaster medicine such as first responders. They may also direct the actions of volunteering social workers.

When not handling disastrous situations and emergencies, these specialists are seen working numerous clinical jobs. They can work as health care professionals in primary care, emergency departments and specialty clinics.





Must effectively communicate with your co-workers to ensure the best care and the proper procedures. Must be able to communicate in high-stress environments.

Active Listening

Offering your full attention to an individual person or group in order to fully understand problems and their nature.

Critical Thinking

Must use logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems.

Judgment and Decision Making

Needs to be able to act autonomously and make difficult decisions that would benefit the patient or make corrections. Must consider all benefits and repercussions of potential actions and choose the appropriate one. 

Complex Problem Solving

Must be able to identify complex problems and develop and evaluate corrective options and implement solutions. 

Stress Management

Must be able to endure intense situations and handle pressure that comes with extreme situations you may encounter.


Must be trustworthy because you have people's lives in your hands and what you do could help or hurt them. They are entrusted with a great responsibility and must live up to it. 


Gauging how people react and read their body language to decipher their feelings and predict their actions. They must be able to determine if people could be a risk to themselves or others and to distinguish truths from lies.


Working Conditions


Disaster medical specialists are trained to deal with uncertainty. They are required to handle emergency situations occurring at anytime, at anyplace. Since they have to work in locations that are struck by disaster, they are left exposed to numerous hazards. For example, when attending to patients stuck inside a collapsed building, the specialists have to encounter the danger of a spontaneous inferno.

There is no scope for clean and antiseptic medicine in this field. Health care must be provided in limited time and under immense pressure. The margin for error is very narrow. Specialists are required to make life-or-death decisions on the spot for the betterment of the survivors.

Depending on how long the recovery work takes, disaster medical specialists have to work for days at a stretch with little breaks in between. Under normal circumstances, disaster medical specialists work regular business hours.

The work of a disaster medical specialist is usually voluntary. Their salaries are earned by working as a regular physician.




How to Become a Disaster Medical Specialist:


1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree (4 Years)


Given the novelty of this specialty, there are not many programs that are dedicated to providing education and training in disaster medicine. To become a disaster medical specialist, one must complete college, medical college and residency in medical or surgical specialty.

A minimum of 3 years of undergraduate completion is required before applying to medical school while maintaining a high GPA (3.5+). Due to the competitive nature of these programs, the candidates with the most success are well-rounded with work, volunteer, extracurricular, and shadowing experience as well.

If you have three years of college but no bachelor’s degree, you can still be accepted to medical school. There are post-baccalaureate programs designed to help students catch up by providing the courses needed to apply to medical school. For applying, you must submit a copy of transcripts from any college and/or graduate school you’ve attended. You’ll also need letters of recommendation and scores from the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). If you aren’t satisfied with your MCAT scores, you can retake the exam. The American Medical College Application Service can also help by submitting one application to multiple medical schools.


2. Take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)


To be admitted into medical school, candidates must first take the MCAT, or Medical College Admission Test, a 7.5 hour, standardized, multiple choice exam used to assess the applicant's knowledge of science, reasoning, communication, and writing skills.


The MCAT is divided into four sections:



 Section Breakdown

Biological & Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

  • 59 multiple-choice questions

  • 95 minutes

  • Tests biology, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry

Chemical & Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

  • 59 multiple-choice questions

  • 95 minutes

  • Tests biochemistry, biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics

Psychological, Social, & Biological Foundations of Behavior

  • 59 multiple-choice questions

  • 95 minutes

  • Tests introductory psychology, sociology, and biology

Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills

  • 53 multiple-choice questions

  • 90 minutes

  • Tests reading comprehension, humanities, and social sciences


You can find study materials, MCAT registration, and your test scores on the AAMC website here.


3. Earn a Medical Degree (4 Years)


A list of accredited medical education programs is available through the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). For more information and advice on successfully getting into medical school, you can check with the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Medical school consists of four years of studying the basics in science and participating in clinical “rotations.” These are hands-on clinical experiences in real health care settings. In most med schools, the first two years are taken up with classroom studies before students are assigned to do rotations. The current trend, however, finds a number of medical schools exposing students to early clinical experiences that continue throughout the four-year program.

Most medical schools base their curriculum on a system-based approach that focuses on one physiological system at a time, such as the respiratory system or the nervous system. Still others may use a case-based curriculum that teaches about the human body’s normal functioning and disease processes by assigning students to following individual patient cases from start to finish. Still other med schools use a combination of these approaches to educate their students.

The most common lines of coursework among medical schools consist of the following subjects:

  • Anatomy

  • Biochemistry

  • Ethics

  • Pharmacology

  • Physiology

  • Psychology

During the last two years of schooling, students are required to obtain hands-on experience at hospitals and clinics, learning to diagnose and treat patients while working under the supervision of licensed physicians.

Upon completion of four years of med school, a student is awarded a medical degree, or M.D. Another popular trend is for schools to offer combination degree programs, such as MD/MPH, MD/PHD or MD/JD. The AAMC’s website on Medical School Admission Requirements offers more information on this option.


The preparation timeline below provides an example medical school curriculum:



Example Courses

Year 1


  • Cells and Tissues

  • Molecular Foundations of Medicine

  • Applied Biochemistry 

  • Genetics

  • Disease Mechanisms & Development

  • Cardiac Life Support

  • The Nervous System

  • Immunology

  • Gross Anatomy of Head & Neck

  • Microbiology

  • Pulmonary System

  • Cardiovascular System

  • Microbiology

Year 2

  • Renal/Genitourinary System

  • Gastrointestinal System

  • Skin/Endocrine Systems

  • Reproduction & Women's Health

  • Microbiology

  • Behavior & the Brain

  • Hematology

  • Systemic Diseases

  • Microbiology

  • Clinical Clerkship

Year 3, 4, 5


  • Internal Medicine

  • Pediatrics

  • Surgery

  • Obstetrics & Gynecology

  • Family Medicine

  • Psychiatry

  • Neurology

  • Critical Care

  • Ambulatory Med

  • Research, Reflections and Advances in Patient Care


4. Take the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE)


In order to practice medicine, aspiring geriatricians must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This exam is sponsored by the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME).

The exam consists of three steps:

Step & Purpose

Format & Other Info

Step 1

Assesses the ability to apply scientific concepts, basic to practicing medicine, emphasizing mechanisms underlying health, disease, and therapy.

  • 310 multiple-choice questions

  • Divided into 7 60-minute blocks

  • Administered via computer

  • One day session

Step 2

Divided into 2 sub-steps: clinical knowledge (CK) & clinical skills (CS).

 The clinical knowledge section assesses the ability to apply medical knowledge, skills, and clinical science to patient care.

The clinical skills section assesses the ability to gather information from patients, perform physical exams, and communicate findings with colleagues.

  • Clinical Knowledge

    • 350 multiple-choice questions

    • Divided into 8 60-minute blocks

    • One day session

  • Clinical Skills

    • 12 patient cases

    • 15 minutes per patient case 

    • 10 minutes to record each patient note (PN)

    • Administered at 6 test centers in the US: Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, & Philadelphia.

    • One day session

Step 3

Divided into 2 sub-steps: Foundations of Independent Practice(FIP) & Advanced Clinical Medicine (ACM)

 Foundations of Independent Practice assesses the knowledge and principles essential for effective health care.

Advanced Clinical Medicine assesses the ability to apply knowledge of health and disease to the context of patient management and an evolving disease.

  • Foundations of Independent Practice

    • 260 multiple-choice questions

    • Divided into 6 60-minute blocks, each w/ 44 questions

    • One day session

  • Advanced Clinical Medicine (ACM)

    • 200 multiple-choice questions

    • Divided into 6 45-minute blocks, each with 33 questions

    • 13 computer-based case simulations, each allotted 10 or 20 minutes

    • One day session


5. Complete a Residency Program (3 - 4 Years)


After completing med school, you aren’t finished yet. Now it’s time to choose your specialty and complete your residency. These residency programs are offered in conjunction with intensive clinical training experiences. Depending on the specialty, residency can last from three to eight years.

The American Medical Association’s online FREIDA service is an interactive database of over 9,400 graduate medical education programs. These programs are all accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. There is also information on over 200 combined specialty programs.


6. Earn a Disaster Medicine Certification


The American Board of Physician Specialties offers a Disaster Medicine Certification aimed at preparing medical professionals for performing in the event of a disaster scenario. In order to be eligible for the certification, candidates must have completed both medical school and their residency. 

It focuses on all aspects of compromising situations that physicians will need to know in order to become a recognized expert in the four main stages of disaster preparation and management:

  • Planning

  • Coordination

  • Execution

  • Debriefing

The program include basic knowledge of the National Incident Management System and the Incident Command System, the principles of triage in disaster settings, how to provide clinical care with very limited resources, and much more.


Learn more about the Disaster Medicine Certification



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