It seems that hospital emergency rooms are always busy and the demands placed on ambulance staff and other healthcare professionals never let up. While the idea of training more staff to make early decisions about patient care has long been discussed, it is only now that formal programmes are being introduced to broaden expertise and provide more specific qualifications.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) is offering a Postgraduate Diploma and Master of Science degree in Pre-hospital and Emergency Care designed to develop the skills and knowledge of healthcare professionals already working in the field. The aim of the two programmes is to introduce the scientific basis for common emergency problems and to enhance the ability of students to assess and manage them. This will include dealing with mass casualty incidents and understanding how various service units communicate and coordinate their actions in a pre-hospital or emergency environment.
"The courses cover core issues such as medical and trauma emergencies, transport, command and control, and major incident management," says Professor Timothy H Rainer, director of CUHK's Accident and Emergency Medicine Academic Unit. Infection control and epidemic prevention, such as for SARS, are also a standard part of the curriculum. On completing the programmes, graduates should have a thorough understanding of emergency care and a new level of specialist knowledge.
Both courses are part-time, with teaching and training provided by experts using a combination of lectures, tutorials, practical skills sessions and simulated scenarios. Group discussions allowing students to share their experiences will focus on the practical aspects of their work and are also intended to encourage further private study. "Our goal is to enhance the overall professionalism of students," Professor Rainer explains. "The practical sessions and group discussions are specially designed to help them develop leadership and management skills to use in their work."
He points out that these are the only courses in Hong Kong which focus on pre-hospital and emergency care, and they therefore fill a substantial gap in terms of general education available in the medical field. While obtaining the qualifications is not a prerequisite for promotion to more senior positions, graduates will certainly benefit from having greater expertise and the additional knowledge necessary for career development.
Professor Rainer notes that the relevant medical bodies will provide full accreditation in two to three years, once the initial student intakes have completed the courses. He adds that Hong Kong's ageing population and the rising cost of health care are putting local medical services under ever more pressure.
At present, emergency room doctors are responsible for deciding if a patient should be admitted to hospital, or if an injury is life threatening or not. "In providing the right training in medical skills and assessment techniques, we hope to increase the number of medical staff able to make appropriate decisions about common emergency problems," Professor Rainer concludes. "We also hope that the time will come when the ambulance men can decide whether a patient is in need of hospital admission."