Add another casualty to the Persian Gulf War -- the entire U.S. health-care system. The call-up of more than 60,000 medical professionals with their reserve units to buttress Operation Desert Storm has left hospitals, clinics and laboratories short-staffed. Some rural communities have lost not just the best doctor or the favorite doctor, but the only doctor.
The American medical establishment, short-handed and overworked before Saddam Hussein became a household word, is now staggering from the loss of doctors and nurses. Reservists have been called to the Persian Gulf or have been ordered to report to military hospitals in the United States so that full-time military staff members at those hospitals can go to the front.
One physician group in rural South Carolina lost more than half of its staff. A hospital in Tennessee had two doctors who specialize in rehabilitation, and both were called up.
A small clinic in Nebraska sent its only physical therapist to Operation Desert Storm, leaving administrators scrambling for a qualified replacement.
The shortages are not limited to small, rural facilities. In the nation's cities, hospitals have sent doctors and nurses to the war. Often the medical slots are filled, but not with the same caliber of professional.
At Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago, the head emergency room nurse left her post for Desert Storm. The head operating room nurse and other nurses at the hospital could be shipped out any day.
Covering the vacancies is no small task. There was a nationwide dearth of qualified professionals before the call-ups. Many administrators won't say it publicly, but patient care is suffering. Privately they worry about what will happen if the war drags on and the wounded are added to the mix.
"We're just not ready to take care of them beyond medical stabilization and immediate acute care," said a spokeswoman for the Murer Group, a firm representing more than 500 hospitals, nursing homes and clinics. "Our system just couldn't take a sudden flow of injured soldiers."
The Department of Veterans Affairs and military hospitals would provide the primary care for wounded soldiers, but the VA already is scouting for extra beds in private hospitals when the military hospitals run out of room.
Kaiser-Permanente, the nation's largest health maintenance organization, says its hospitals are full and short-staffed. Already, 120 of its nurses and 30 of its doctors have been called up for Operation Desert Storm.
Other experts say not only is there a lack of space for the wounded, but there also is no plan for long-term care and rehabilitation therapy for soldiers.
We recently reported that the VA does not have a credible program for treating head-injured soldiers. Now, as the Persian Gulf War saps the strength of the medical establishment, it looks like soldiers won't be the only ones waiting for a doctor.