Is there a doctor on board? Innovative field training prepares future physicians for emergency situations – and allows them to serve as they learn

    Third-year emergency medicine resident Jennifer McGowan, M.D., instructs the students in intubation
    Third-year emergency medicine resident Jennifer McGowan, M.D., instructs the students in intubation

    LOUISVILLE, Ky. – “Odds are that at some point in your flying career, you will have to respond to an overhead page:  ‘Is there any doctor on board the flight,’” Raymond Orthober, M.D., assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Louisville, told 35 second- and third-year medical students.

    Orthober, the students and additional instructors were aboard a Delta aircraft, engaged in a training event for treating passengers who have medical issues during a commercial flight. Although the aircraft remained at the gate, the space created a realistic environment for learning to provide medical care in the air.

    “One day that’s going to be me who can stand up and say, ‘I’m here.’ This is a chance to have a little background in what to do in those scenarios and to get comfortable managing those things in an airplane setting,” said Matthew Wilson, a third-year UofL medical student who took part in the training.

    In-flight emergency training video
    Click for a video about in-flight emergency training

    In-flight emergencies are just one of the scenarios Wilson and other medical students experience as part of the Disaster Medicine Certificate Series (DMCS), a program at the UofL School of Medicine that prepares them for a wide variety of emergency situations. More than 65 second- and third-year students have participated in DMCS training events, including mass casualty triage and handling hazardous materials, since the extracurricular program began at UofL last fall. Organizers believe it is the only program in the nation that exposes medical students to this type of training on an ongoing basis.

    The DMCS grew out of third-year medical student Madison Kommor’s own desire to help in case of an emergency.

    “I hope I never have to respond to a disaster situation, but I was tired of sitting in a library waiting for someone to teach me what to do if something happens,” Kommor said.

    DMCS is designed to prepare future physicians in every specialty to put their skills to work in case of natural or man-made disasters such as a flood, hurricane or mass shooting.

    “A lot of students got excited about it. They want to be useful, but they need to be trained,” said Bethany Hodge, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of pediatrics at UofL and a faculty advisor for DMCS.

    The program’s training sessions, which take place during the students’ free time, familiarize students with emergency response systems and prepare them to provide medical assistance outside of a hospital or clinical environment. During the in-flight emergency training, instructors shared stories of their own experiences with in-flight emergencies, described medical supplies typically found on commercial aircraft, and explained laws and best practices for helping passengers in distress and the use of ground-based medical support. Students then rotated among seven training stations, where they treated simulated in-flight emergencies such as cardiac arrest, drug overdose, turbulence injuries and choking.

    Medical student Matthew Wilson practices a cricothyroidotomy, inserting a tube through the neck to allow a patient to breathe, in an airline seat.
    Medical student Matthew Wilson practices a cricothyroidotomy, inserting a tube through the neck to allow a patient to breathe, in an airline seat.

    “The disaster medicine training provides the opportunity to get hands-on in real-world settings that we really don’t get elsewhere in medical training,” Wilson said.

    In addition to the flight emergency experience, the students have received mass casualty training from the United States Army, instruction in medical countermeasures from the Louisville Metro Department of Health & Wellness, and learned about trauma management in a wilderness setting. Once students have accumulated sufficient training points within a two-year period, they will receive a certificate of program completion.

    Although the students will not be licensed physicians for a few more years, they are putting their training to work for the community immediately. Program participants are required to enlist in the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), a national network of volunteers organized for emergency response under the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Some of the students have participated with the MRC in response to the Hepatitis A outbreak, assisting the Louisville Department of Health & Wellness with vaccination drives. Other students have joined the Norton Children’s Special Response Team, formed to handle hazardous material decontamination situations at Norton Children’s Hospital.

    “I think the real world experience is valuable and you are not just waiting to give back, which is another thing that motivates the students,” Hodge said. “Being able to do something now is really positive.”

    The opportunity for immediate application and the ongoing nature of the program, as opposed to a one-time event, give Hodge confidence that the students will retain their involvement in disaster preparedness throughout their careers.

    “My hope is that we have people with the mindset for disaster preparedness,” Hodge said. “No matter what type of physician they become, they are able to support the systems that deal with natural and man-made disasters.”

    See a video about the in-flight training.


    Betty Coffman
    Betty Coffman is a Communications Coordinator focused on research and innovation at UofL. A UofL alumna and Louisville native, she served as a writer and editor for local and national publications and as an account services coordinator and copywriter for marketing and design firms prior to joining UofL’s Office of Communications and Marketing.