Geisinger epidemiologist looking at N.J. residents hit by Hurricane Sandy.

Last updated: May 12. 2013 11:24PM - 4039 Views

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A Geisinger doctor wants to understand how people handle disasters, more specifically, how their brains handle them.

Dr. Joseph Boscarino is an epidemiologist, a type of psychologist, and he’s conducting a study on the people of Monmouth and Ocean counties in New Jersey, two counties that arguably were hit hardest during Hurricane Sandy.

“Hurricane Sandy offers a unique opportunity to study the impact of a large-scale disaster in a major shore community,” Boscarino said.

Using research completed during the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack, Boscarino, a New Jersey native who now works in Danville, will employ his test-in-progress, the “New York PTSD Risk Score,” to measure how residents are recovering now that about seven months have passed since Sandy.

The test, if proven effective, will be applied not only to those traumatized by natural disasters. Those who witness terrorist attacks and combat-weathered veterans can take the test to give doctors insight into potential mental problems that might come down the road.

Already, the doctor said he has used pieces of the risk-score test with returning war veterans at Geisinger hospitals and found it to be highly effective.

By building a list of 500 cooperating residents affected by last year’s hurricane, the New Jersey study will start as a survey to discover:

• The disaster’s personal impact on each participant;

• Each participant’s health status before and after Sandy;

• If the hurricane caused participants any psychological strain, such as anxiety or panic attacks, depression or post traumatic stress disorder.

“The goal here is to understand what happened, learn from it and be prepared moving forward, as hurricane season will be starting again very soon,” he said. Hurricane/tropical storm season officially begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

The hypothesis Boscarino and his team have been testing rests on the idea that, while those who go through disasters may seem to bounce back quickly, long-term psychological effects set in slowly.

Funding has been a challenge, Boscarino said.

Risk-score testing apparatus is made of a psycho-social portion in the form of verbal and written questions, but there’s a biological segment that uses DNA samples to test a disaster survivor’s susceptibility to mental anguish.

The team secured funding in the form of pilot grants for the verbal and written portions of the risk score project, Boscarino said. Funding for the second half, the DNA testing part, will be granted depending on the pilot’s success.

The doctor referenced Hurricane Irene, the devastating 2011 storm that walloped communities along the Susquehanna River in Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania. That storm left behind significant scars; however, as a researcher, his team must pursue funded projects, the doctor said.

The researchers aspire to standardize their risk score test and make its apparatus affordable and compact. They hope their test will be added to the repertoire of standard tests completed in trauma units and by disaster relief teams.

“It’s got to be simple and cost effective,” Boscarino said.

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