The red helicopter responding to the most critical injuries and illnesses is typically what comes to mind when people think of STARS, but it’s the training happening on the ground that also makes a difference.

In 1999, STARS embarked on an innovative path to help enhance patient care, particularly in rural areas, by establishing the Human Patient Simulator (HPS) program.

“By placing a high-fidelity mannequin in a motorhome set up to recreate an emergency room, STARS was able to travel, providing simulation and education in rural communities,” said Dave Allison, mobile simulation program lead.

The STARS Mobile Education Unit program (MEU), which operates in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, was the first program of its kind in North America.

Inside STARS’ modified motorhomes is a sophisticated human patient simulator which replicates complex medical issues over and over again, offering medical personnel an opportunity to test and practice their reactions and skills, leading to familiarity and confidence, said Matt Hogan, a flight paramedic and leader of the MEU program in Saskatchewan.

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STARS’ four mobile education units provide training in rural areas across Western Canada

“Most rural physicians, nurses, paramedics and other caregivers have the knowledge and skills, but don’t see trauma patients that often,” said Hogan. “This program offers them the experience to make critical life-and-death decisions in a less stressful, team environment. It’s also hard for many of these health-care workers to find the time to leave their communities, so we come to them.” For Dr. Ali Abdalvand, STARS was there to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical experience.

“As a result of STARS’ training, I feel very comfortable walking into a room where the sickest patient needs to be seen, whether it’s a multiple trauma car rollover or a patient in heart failure,” said Abdalvand, who works as a rural doctor in Alberta.

Dr. Abdalvand said he’s called upon his simulation training many times since his
residency training in Grande Prairie.

“Being a rural physician means you have limited team members and limited equipment. In the STARS sessions they intentionally corner you with short-staffed situations in remote locations with multiple complex patient scenarios to help you get better at managing these situations.”

Dr. Mike Betzner, Calgary base medical director, said the program has been valuable in building relationships with rural physicians and medical providers, as they feel more comfortable calling STARS when faced with critical situations they don’t commonly see. STARS physicians are on-call 24 hours a day and provide direction as to whether the helicopter is required.

Another component of the STARS training program is a one-month residency offered to physicians from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons Critical Care Medicine program.

“These physicians spend a month with us and become familiar with how STARS works,” said Dr. Betzner. “This includes the way we triage, our communication systems and how the STARS Emergency Link Centre works.”

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The mobile training program provides specialized critical care skill training to STARS crews and other emergency care providers.

He said this helps these physicians, who will eventually specialize in critical care, better understand the complexities of prehospital care. “Some of these physicians have never had to work on a patient in a ditch, with their family members crying around them,” said Dr. Betzner, adding that it’s quite different than working on patients in a sterile hospital environment. “This is a dramatically important part of their training that they just can’t get anywhere else.”Dr. Andrew Fagan is one of the physicians who has participated in this residency and echoed the importance of hands-on training. “The simulations that they run at STARS are first-class, and the air medical crew are some of the best I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Fagan, who also spent nine months in New Zealand taking part in their critical care program.

STARS also has extensive training programs for its own crews, including the STARS Academy, which Chad Hegge, clinical educator, helped launch initially for external stakeholders. The program morphed to be more geared towards STARS air medical crew members, but still accepts some external applicants.

“We talk about some advanced topics but we also re-emphasize the basics over and over again,” said Hegge. “Practice and feedback, over and over again, that’s what makes a difference.”

Together, all of these tactics help strengthen the chain of survival, enabling STARS and its partners to make a difference.