The course preparing nursing students for mass casualties

Instead of going to class, about 140 nursing students were called to look after dozens of patients who were severely injured after a roof collapse at an 18th birthday party and a hospital fire in an aged-care ward.

The final year University of Sydney students were given small bags of medical supplies and sent out with a team of paramedics and nurses to two elaborate simulations of mass casualty incidents as part of a new unit that was recently introduced in the nursing degree.

Each scenario involved about 70 patients with various injuries that were similar to what nurses would encounter in the event of a global terrorism or extreme climate incident, for which it is becoming increasingly important to prepare nursing students, according to course co-ordinator Jane Currie.

"The focus of mass casualty education is towards specialty disciplines but if there is a mass casualty incident, it's very likely that nurses will be involved," said Ms Currie, who is the lead author of the first paper on the provision of mass casualty nursing education in Australia. It was recently published in Nurse Education in Practice.

"There are very few documented accounts of the inclusion of mass casualty education within undergraduate nursing programs," the paper notes.

The course, which is one of a few being taught in Australia, was introduced to the undergraduate nursing degree at Sydney University in 2014 and has since been expanded to involve NSW emergency services and former students.

It combines theory with a simulation of a mass disaster in which nursing students work alongside medical students, staff from Bankstown Lidcombe Hospital's emergency department, paramedics from NSW Ambulance and nurses from NSW Air Ambulance to treat other students who are acting as patients.

"One of the benefits of doing this at an undergraduate level is that you do establish that every nurse would have baseline mass casualty education," Ms Currie said.

Melissa Manjon, 20, who sat her final nursing exam last week and will begin working at a public hospital in Sydney next month, said the simulation was more difficult than she expected.

"The mass casualty day was terrifying," Ms Manjon said.

"I went in feeling really prepared but it was very chaotic, people were haemorrhaging, it was very loud and very hard to think and people were constantly interrupting. That's what it will be like in a mass casualty incident.

"I definitely feel more aware. I was kind of flustered and running around everywhere, but in real life I know I'll need to slow down and treat each patient as they come."

Vanessa Korkise, 20, who is also a final-year nursing student and has a graduate nursing job lined up for next year, said the simulations were very different from working in a hospital.

"It was such an unpredictable environment where people were just walking around and screaming, and you have so many casualties," Vanessa said.

"It was just about being able to do the most for the most. If a patient was deteriorating in a pre-hospital environment, we had to keep doing what we could for other patients who could survive."

Ms Currie said the resource-heavy simulation day was one of the most important parts of the new course.

"There's a thing called the theory-practice gap where it's quite difficult to bring things to life when you're teaching a practical subject," Ms Currie said.

"So we've tried to layer lectures and tutorials with practice so students could actually experience what it is like to treat multiple casualties.

"It's quite resource intensive but we've had support from Sydney Medical School, hospitals and emergency services. It's very much embedded in industry, it's very important that you have people facilitating it who have that experience."

This story The course preparing nursing students for mass casualties first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.