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Tracking EMS student success with education software

Too many times EMS educators are left to their own devices and intuition to understand how well the "system" is working. Now, software is changing that.

There're plenty of software solutions for the operations side of the EMS industry, designed for system management and billing purposes.

"Hard" pieces of data such as vehicles, equipment, treatment types, mileage and so forth are ideal for digital storage, retrieval and analysis. Computing applications allow providers, supervisors and administrators to quickly understand how the systems are working, and make adjustments as necessary to maintain services given the resources.

In the world of education, there are fewer resources, which I find frustrating. Too many times EMS educators are left to their own devices and intuition to understand how well the "system" is working.

When asked, "how are our students doing?" instructors often focus on the behavior of the class as a whole, and use a combination of memory, gut instinct, and frankly a little bit of "creative license" to describe the student body.

In all likelihood, the reality is probably not too far from the perception of the instructor. But, just how probable is it? How would the estimate of the instructor, well-meaning as it may be, hold up against the scrutiny of a student grievance, or public perception of a poorly performing program?

The "soft" side of an EMS system is the human component -- employees who treat patients and transport them to the hospital and back to their homes. It's vitally important that we apply the same sense of curiosity and science to how well ambulances perform to how well its operators perform.

Nowhere is it more important than in the realm of primary education -- students learning to become emergency medical responders, EMTs or paramedics. The education system is an integral part of any EMS system, and should be measured just the same as the "hard" side.

Who benefits? The patient, ultimately and always. And just as importantly, future EMS professionals benefit from knowing they did in fact receive the best preparation from their training programs. Quality employers hire new staff from quality educational institutions.

What kind of data might a training program track? Consider looking at the profession's accrediting agency, the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, or CAAHEP.

CAAHEP sets the standards for how educational institutions should run their paramedic programs. The standards, which contains specific requirements for entry level practitioners, are approved by the CAAHEP Board of Directors after they go through a rigorous review that includes input from the communities of interest, a public open hearing, and approval by the Committee on Accreditation of Education Programs for the EMS Professions (CoAEMSP) and its sponsoring organizations.

273 programs are CAAHEP accredited, meaning that they have met the set standards. To comply, these programs collect a myriad of data points, such as:

  • Student attrition rates
  • Student pass rates on final competency exams
  • Employment rates
  • Numbers of types of procedures performed
  • Satisfaction of students and employers
  • Availability of clinical sites
  • Variety of clinical sites
  • Ages and types of patient encounters
  • Preparation of program directors and instructors
  • Participation of the medical director

These are only a few data points. None are frivolous; all have been considered to be bellwether markers for the performance of a program.

This might be daunting, especially for programs with few resources (read: staffing) to collect and make sense of this data. Even fewer have the internal resources to develop and maintain a data collection system that extends beyond paper and pencil.

About fifteen years ago, several community college programs pooled their resources and created such a database that eventually became the Field Internship Student Data Acquisition Project, or FISDAP. Nearly 770 programs today use FISDAP to track the progress of over 10,000 students at any given time.

Each winter, the organization sponsors a research summit that invites dozens of educators from across the country to "mine" the data for examples of best practices and influencers of student success.

In addition to tracking students, FISDAP also offers services such as test prep and study tools to help students prepare for their final examinations, validated testing for final exams, and a resource area for programs that are considering the accreditation process. This area is powered by the community of FISDAP users that regularly provide assistance to each other in user forums and participate in the research process.

For an EMS system to function effectively, all parts must be measured effectively. This includes how we provide the initial entry into the system, the educational programs responsible for training new EMS providers. Software applications exist that can help educators perform this crucial task and allow them to focus on what really works inside that classroom.

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