Systematic review of strategies to manage and allocate scarce resources during mass casualty events

Ann Emerg Med. 2013 Jun;61(6):677-689.e101. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2013.02.005. Epub 2013 Mar 20.


Study objective: Efficient management and allocation of scarce medical resources can improve outcomes for victims of mass casualty events. However, the effectiveness of specific strategies has never been systematically reviewed. We analyze published evidence on strategies to optimize the management and allocation of scarce resources across a wide range of mass casualty event contexts and study designs.

Methods: Our literature search included MEDLINE, Scopus, EMBASE, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature, Global Health, Web of Science, and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, from 1990 through late 2011. We also searched the gray literature, using the New York Academy of Medicine's Grey Literature Report and key Web sites. We included both English- and foreign-language articles. We included studies that evaluated strategies used in actual mass casualty events or tested through drills, exercises, or computer simulations. We excluded studies that lacked a comparison group or did not report quantitative outcomes. Data extraction, quality assessment, and strength of evidence ratings were conducted by a single researcher and reviewed by a second; discrepancies were reconciled by the 2 reviewers. Because of heterogeneity in outcome measures, we qualitatively synthesized findings within categories of strategies.

Results: From 5,716 potentially relevant citations, 74 studies met inclusion criteria. Strategies included reducing demand for health care services (18 studies), optimizing use of existing resources (50), augmenting existing resources (5), implementing crisis standards of care (5), and multiple categories (4). The evidence was sufficient to form conclusions on 2 strategies, although the strength of evidence was rated as low. First, as a strategy to reduce demand for health care services, points of dispensing can be used to efficiently distribute biological countermeasures after a bioterrorism attack or influenza pandemic, and their organization influences speed of distribution. Second, as a strategy to optimize use of existing resources, commonly used field triage systems do not perform consistently during actual mass casualty events. The number of high-quality studies addressing other strategies was insufficient to support conclusions about their effectiveness because of differences in study context, comparison groups, and outcome measures. Our literature search may have missed key resource management and allocation strategies because of their extreme heterogeneity. Interrater reliability was not assessed for quality assessments or strength of evidence ratings. Publication bias is likely, given the large number of studies reporting positive findings.

Conclusion: The current evidence base is inadequate to inform providers and policymakers about the most effective strategies for managing or allocating scarce resources during mass casualty events. Consensus on methodological standards that encompass a range of study designs is needed to guide future research and strengthen the evidence base. Evidentiary standards should be developed to promote consensus interpretations of the evidence supporting individual strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Disaster Medicine / methods*
  • Disaster Planning / methods
  • Humans
  • Mass Casualty Incidents*
  • Resource Allocation / methods*
  • Triage / methods