Laying the groundwork for safer air aid

Posted on 27. Sep, 2013 by in Academic Departments, Annual Report, Healthcare and Medicine, Industrial and Systems Engineering, Issues, Research

Flight simulator

The UW-Madison flight simulator. Photo: Scott Gordon.

It’s 1 a.m. and heavy fog cover has caused a terrible accident on the Interstate. A highly trained medical team climbs aboard the medevac chopper and a highly trained pilot flies the team to the scene. The problem, heading into a potentially life-threatening situation, is that these teams train in isolation and often have competing goals.

This is the culture of aeromedical evacuation teams. Pilots and medical personnel train separately but must make split-second, team-based decisions that often put the entire team at risk to save a patient’s life. It is a culture Chris Johnson aims to improve.

A postdoctoral researcher working with Industrial and Systems Engineering Associate Professor Doug Wiegmann, Johnson is hoping to better integrate aeromedical pilot and medic training using a combination of improved flight simulation software and customized hardware.

This integrated training environment will enable both crews to recognize that their decisions are influenced by potentially conflicting goals. “The medical crew’s goal is to provide quality healthcare to the patient,” says Johnson. “The goal of the aviation crew is the safety of everyone. Sometimes those goals are competing, and that’s what needs to be studied.”

The integrated simulation team training also allows researchers to test the hypothesis that pilots may give in to social influences. “Medical needs may influence a pilot to fly into bad weather to save a patient,” says Johnson, “but that might compromise all of their lives.”

This team-based decision making not only could better prepare pilots for the rigors of aeromedical operations, but also—through scenarios in which the safety of the patient is at odds with the safety of the entire crew—ensure the helicopters are better equipped.

It may be surprising, given the benefits of integrated training, that Johnson feels his biggest challenge is political. “Currently, pilots don’t get credit for training with medical staff in a simulated cabin,” he says. “And nobody wants to pay for more training. But I think that, by putting these teams together, we’re going to save a lot of lives and advance an industry that’s very heroic.”

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