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Web courses put allied health professionals on the cutting edge of disaster response Web courses put allied health professionals on the cutting edge of disaster response

January 2006

by Tina Luther

You are on your normal shift when you hear from a couple of your patients that an "18-wheeler" has overturned less than a mile from your clinic. They tell you that it was carrying chemicals and that the chemicals are leaking out of the tanker. It is a very windy day and when you go outside, you notice a strange smell in the air.

What do you do?

This is an example taken from one of the scenarios students in the School of Allied Health Sciences study to identify chemical agents in the event of a disaster, and is part of the Texas Curriculum for Allied Health Response to Emergencies (C.A.R.E.s) Curriculum Development Project.

Although firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians are the first responders to the site of a disaster, allied health professionals, such as occupational therapists, respiratory therapists, clinical laboratory scientists, physician assistants and physical therapists, also play a key role as responders to mass casualties and public health emergencies.

"All allied health professionals are vital to disaster response," said Marilyn S. Harrington, Ph.D., dean of the School of Allied Health Sciences and principal investigator of the project. "This curriculum was designed to give them the skills, knowledge and abilities to increase victimsí chances of survival."

Twelve Web-based courses for 18 different allied health disciplines, including nutrition/dietetics, clinical laboratory sciences, dental auxiliary programs and radiologic sciences, were developed by 60 allied health faculty members at the Health Science Center, Amarillo College and The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, through the Texas C.A.R.E.s Curriculum Development Project. For the next two years, visitors to the Health Science Centerís School of Allied Health Sciences Web site, www.uthscsa.edu/sah, can utilize the Curriculum for Allied Health Response to Emergencies at any time, free of charge.

"Through this project, current and future students can receive content related to bioterrorism and emergency management at their level," Dr. Harrington said.

Of the 13 universities in the nation that received federal funding for bioterrorism curriculum development, the Health Science Center and the University of Nebraska were the only two that received grants specifically for allied health programs. The Health Science Centerís $1.1 million grant not only includes the Web modules on terrorism, but also volunteer responder electives and Community Emergency Response Team training.

"We learned about the different types of bioterrorism disasters and how to respond to unusual disasters," said Christy Pool, a third-year physician assistant studies student. "It is important to not only know how to respond, but to know what resources are available."

Through this training, students learn incident command, a key skill in a high-stress environment. "Knowing who to take orders from and how to carry out necessary taskswhile remaining calm can help streamline rescue efforts and maximize efficiency," Dr. Harrington said.

Oftentimes, the "worried well" can cause problems rather than solve them. They can become victims themselves while trying to assist the injured. Trained allied health professionals can keep them in a safe environment and away from official rescue sites. Allied health professionals can also provide assistance in other areas such as administrative tracking, record keeping, and addressing compliance and contamination issues.

In the event of a chemical spill, physical therapists, for example, can carefully transport the disabled, including paraplegics and the blind and deaf, from affected areas to safe sites. Allied health professionals can also properly escort contaminated persons to decontamination showers while protecting themselves from potentially dangerous substances. The training from the Texas C.A.R.E.s project sets allied health practitioners apart from civilians by giving them the specialized skills to act quickly and strategically in dangerous situations.

But chemicals are not the only agents that can create harmful environments. Biological agents and explosives, such as bombs, also cause extensive damage. Every detail counts, and when firefighters are controlling a fire, for example, allied health professionals can work together with emergency medical technicians to help the injured. When victimsí hands are wounded by burns, occupational therapists can place the muscles of curled fingers and hands in particular positions and make splints to hold the fingers in place. This technique is designed to promote healing and maximize the use of the hands.

With this specialized curriculum, Texas C.A.R.E.s has not only become prized among students and professionals, but has created a greater awareness within local and state emergency response systems about allied health professionalsí contributions in emergencies.

"Clearly, San Antonio has an extra cache of people who are better trained," said Eric Epley, executive director of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council for Trauma (STRAC) and director of the Regional Medical Operations Center (RMOC). "Everyone has to be on the same sheet of music for an effective response to occur. Having additional health care professionals with these skills is invaluable."


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