Information for GPs in disaster-affected areas

The RACGP is dedicated to supporting general practitioners who have been affected by natural disasters and other emergencies.

We commend your resilience and commitment to providing essential healthcare services to your communities during challenging times. 

Information for GPs in disaster-affected areas

The RACGP is dedicated to supporting general practitioners who have been affected by natural disasters and other emergencies.

We commend your resilience and commitment to providing essential healthcare services to your communities during challenging times. 

Running a practice > Practice management > Emergencies and pandemics > Information for GPs in disaster-affected areas

Information for GPs

This page will be updated with information relating to specific events as situations evolve. Stay safe.

This page was last updated 23 April 2024.

The RACGP has a range of resources available to support GPs and their communities in preparing for, responding to and recovering from emergencies and disasters:

Exemptions to the telehealth "12-month rule" in areas of natural disaster
Patients in areas affected by natural disaster are now exempt from the existing relationship ("12-month rule") requirement for telehealth. This means patients' don’t need to have had a face-to-face consult with a GP in the last 12 months to access MBS subsidised telehealth services.

A person is exempt from the 12-month rule” if, at the time of accessing a telehealth service, they are living in a local government area that is declared by a State or Territory Government to be a natural disaster area.

Who may be affected by disasters?
A variety of people may be directly or indirectly exposed to disasters and their reactions may range from acute distress to denial and disbelief. Such shocking experiences may have an immediate impact for some, leading to acute and ongoing severe distress. Others may experience a temporary shutting off of feelings, revealing little external response. There is no right or wrong way to respond. Making sure people are physically safe, listening and comforting them are basic responses for general practitioners.

Experiences range from those with the most direct exposure to the disaster, to those with contact only through what they have seen on the media; both groups may be affected. Most people recover from such traumatic events but if distress continues people may need professional assessment, and possibly intervention. Those who seek help from a health professional will most often first present to a GP.

What are normal reactions?
Distress, denial and disbelief are common reactions people may show for days and sometimes up to weeks after a disaster. In the initial hours and days, people may be stunned and dazed, particularly in response to a sudden and devastating disaster.

The first consultation
The most important provisions in the first hours to the first weeks after a disaster are safety, comfort and the support of family and/or friends.

GPs should ensure their impacted patients are safe and have the support of family members, friends and the community.

During the  first consultation with an impacted patient, GPs are advised to:

1. Listen, comfort and quietly accept information

  • Offer help and comfort.
  • Be quietly responsive. 
  • Some people may be helped by talking, for others talking may make it more difficult or, it may not be the right time. Let the individual guide you.
  • Identify support systems of family, friends and local community groups.
  • Remember the special things in families that may be important, e.g. pets.

2. Ensure survival, safety and security

A stunned mental state can leave people relatively unaware of their own safety and vulnerability.

A brief medical assessment allows:

  • Assessment of physical injuries
  • A review of changes to pre-existing physical and mental health conditions
  • Time for contact and talk
  • Gives reassurance and shows interest. Provision of a safe place to stay is important. If very concerned about someone's mental health, talk to a mental health professional.

3. Orient towards goals

Trauma and grief can leave a sense of chaos and fear. Activities that can help patients regain a sense of structure include:

  • Basic routines (meals etc)
  • An early follow-up appointment at 1 month and again if concerns at 3 months
  • Being in the company of others until the acute distress/denial subsides (hours to days)
  • Show patients things they can do themselves towards recovery
  • Practical tasks and everyday routine are helpful. 

The main issues for patients in your initial consultation are fear, grief and loss, and dislocation.

It is common to experience grief and trauma after a disaster.

Feeling dislocated from one’s home and environment, due to the loss of a house or neighbourhood, are factors that can lead to ongoing distress.

Common themes that patients might express are:

  • Difficulty falling and remaining asleep
  • Anxiety
  • Uncertainty about the future and what they can do to feel safe, supported and happy again
  • Disruption to normal routines and patterns of life adding to uncertainty
  • Irritability, anger and frustration can be common

There are ways to help people reengage with the practical aspects of their lives, including:

  • Linking to others such as family, friends and neighbours. This could be done directly, through social media, or any other channels that work best for them.
  • Getting the best sources of information, including local radio and newspapers, media and call centres.
  • Helping people call upon their own personal strengths that they have used in the past or in difficult situations (everyone has these). This is a very powerful part of getting better.
Who is at greater risk?
It is important to identify those at greater risk of problems in the early weeks, months, or over a longer time. These include groups with the following experiences:
  • Belief that they were about to die
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Pre-existing and chronic health problems
  • Lack of support systems or connections
  • Very severe or disabling injury
  • Exposure to multiple deaths or injuries of others
  • Pre-existing vulnerabilities including socio­economic disadvantage

Vulnerable groups may include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, refugees, children, the elderly and single parents. 

When is referral needed?
Specialist help may be needed after one month if a person:

  • Still feels upset, very teary, or fearful most of the time
  • Has changed behaviour compared to before the trauma
  • Can't function in normal activities
  • Has worsening relationship issues.
  • Is overusing or abusing substances
  • Feels jumpy or disturbed sleep
  • Is dwelling on the event
  • Is unable to enjoy life; numbness or withdrawal
  • Is experiencing overwhelming grief that prevents functioning,

GPs should feel confident to assess and refer on for specialist mental health treatment those patients with persisting symptoms that disrupt daily functioning after the disaster.

Major psychiatric syndromes following disaster or trauma

  • Major depression
  • Major anxiety disorders
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance abuse
  • Major behavioural change
  • Psychosomatic complaints
  • Panic disorder

Note that these may co-occur with physical health problems and that both should be assessed and managed.

‘Normal’ responses of children to disaster or trauma

  • Withdrawn, quiet
  • Whiny, irritable, angry
  • Headaches, stomach aches
  • Regression to younger behaviours- thumb sucking, bedwetting, baby talk
  • Clinginess
  • Over reactions to minor hurts, physical and emotional
  • Behavioural problems
  • Acting out.

If a child is so acutely distressed and unable to function continuing beyond the first week then an assessment by a mental health professional is required.

See this from the Australian Childhood Foundation

Mental health resources
External mental health resources are available to support community and self in the wake of traumatic events:

Doctors may be directly impacted by disasters and need to look after their own health and wellbeing. Doctors may also become overloaded by the traumatic experiences of others.

Early indicators that a doctor is affected by the traumatic experiences of their patients may include:

  • Heightened response to the patient.
  • Increased levels of arousal (sleep disturbance)
  • Avoidance (includes increased alcohol use).

To avoid being overwhelmed, doctors should consider:

  • Discussing distressing or difficult experiences with colleagues
  • Limiting their exposure to a tolerable level
  • Maintaining good general health with regular exercise, good nutrition and sleep habits
  • Seeking help if needed.

RACGP GP support program
If you’ve been impacted by a disaster, please take care of your own health. The RACGP GP Support Program provides free and confidential psychological support to members.

DRS4DRS is an independent program providing confidential support and resources to doctors and medical students across Australia, by doctors.
Confidential phone advice is available 24/7 for any doctor or medical student in Australia via each state/territory helpline and referral service.

The Essential Network (TEN) for Health Professionals
This online e-mental health hub, developed by the Black Dog Institute, connects frontline healthcare workers with services to help manage burnout and maintain good mental health.

Hand-n-Hand Peer Support
Helping Australian and New Zealand Nurses and Doctors (Hand-n-Hand) offers free confidential peer support for health professionals.

CRANAplus Bush Support Service
Free and confidential 24-hour/7-day-a-week telephone counselling service for rural and remote health practitioners. The service is staffed by psychologists, including two Aboriginal psychologists. CRANAplus membership is not required to access the service. Phone 1800 805 391.

Community support services
Other mental health support services available include:

Lifeline   13 11 14
beyondblue 1300 224 636
Mensline 1300 789 978
Kids helpline 1800 551 800

Government financial assistance
State and federal financial supports are available for people affected by the flooding events and other natural disasters. Visit the National Emergency Management Agency or the Department of Home Affairs Disaster Assist websites for information on the financial assistance available in your area.

Support from financial institutions
Most financial institutions (banks, lenders, etc.) have financial assistance programs to assist disaster-affected customers. We recommend practices contact their financial institution and ask about available supports and assistance programs.

PHN disaster recovery grants
Numerous Primary Health Networks (PHNs) have established disaster recovery grants to support local community wellbeing and resilience, community connections and emergency response capabilities. Contact your local PHN to see if funding is available in your area or visit the Department of Home Affairs Disaster Assist website.

Rural Doctors Foundation (For Queensland GPs)
Rural Doctors Foundation has funding available to assist disaster-affected rural doctors and the people they care for. For funding criteria and further information on the application process, visit their website.

Locum work
If you wish to provide GP support in impacted areas, contact your local Primary HealtNetwork (PHN) who will link you with the relevant local agency.

Medico-legal coverage in impacted areas
Most medical defence organisations (MDOs) produced statements in early 2020, prompted by GPs providing emergency assistance in bushfire zones, clarifying that services provided by GPs in a voluntary capacity in such events were covered by their policies.

We suggest you contact your MDO directly regarding your coverage.

If your practice’s accreditation is due to expire soon and you have been affected by a natural disaster or other emergency, you may be eligible for an extension. These requests are managed by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (ACSQHC) under Advisory GP23/02: Requests for extensions and appeals.

For further information, please contact your accrediting agency or the commission’s advice centre at

You can also contact the RACGP standards team at if you have any further questions.

RACGP contacts

New South Wales & Australian Capital Territory

T: 02 9886 4700 
Join the RACGP NSW&ACT Facebook group to chat with your colleagues and stay up to date.


T: (03) 6212 5888
Join the RACGP Tasmania Facebook group to chat with your colleagues and stay up to date.


T: 07 3456 8944
Join the RACGP QLD Facebook group to chat with your colleagues and stay up to date.


T: (03) 8699 0488
Join the RACGP Victoria Facebook group to chat with your colleagues and stay up to date.

South Australia & Northern Territory

T: 08 9867 8310 
Join the RACGP SA&NT Facebook group to chat with your colleagues and stay up to date.

Western Australia

T: 08 9489 9555
Join the RACGP WA Facebook group to chat with your colleagues and stay up to date.