NCCTRC and CDU providing academic pathways for future emergency responders

08 Jun 2022

By Prof Dianne Stephens
In association with Penelope James, Nadine Tipping, Paul Bell

Planning, training and education are recognized as key elements in capacity building in the Indo- Pacific region to enable effective local responses to health emergencies. The National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre (NCCTRC) through its regional engagement program has delivered training and capacity building education across the Pacific for many years. My own experience in teaching in Fiji, Samoa, Timor Leste, and the Solomon Islands has been invaluable to me personally and professionally. The health workers in these countries face extraordinary challenges on a daily basis, working long and often difficult hours in their health systems, and remain passionate about taking advantage of opportunities to learn and improve outcomes for their people.

One of our goals at the NCCTRC is to drive innovation through research, development, and advocacy for innovative best practice clinical care in sudden onset health emergencies and in low resource settings. This led to an academic pathway program for our unique multidisciplinary workforce.

In 2019, the NCCTRC partnered with Charles Darwin University (CDU) to progress the development of academic pathways through a suite of postgraduate courses designed by and for people working in health emergency preparedness and response to formalise and expand on the knowledge and expertise in the workforce, embed best practice and drive continuous improvement. One of the important principles in the development phase was to ensure the courses provided the opportunity for capacity building in our region and the curriculum was designed to be applied into different health system contexts.


The postgraduate courses build on the existing training and education program delivered by the NCCTRC, in the form of short courses and workshops. The partnership between CDU, Menzies and the NCCTRC, provides a platform for ongoing research, innovation and translation into practice in the field of disaster and emergency medical preparedness and response.

The NCCTRC provides Pacific scholarships for the postgraduate courses and in 2022 is supporting students from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, Tonga and the Solomon Islands.

One recipient of the 2022 scholarship is Dr Todi from Timor Leste who is currently progressing through the Graduate Certificate in Health Emergency Preparedness and Response.

“This course really gives an insight…. while writing the assignment I am thinking of how it works in our local context. I am writing the mass casualty plan for the hospital…. we don’t have local experts in the area of health emergency and preparedness so I’m glad I get the opportunity to do this course.”

To date, there are several scholarship students who completed the inaugural Graduate Certificate in Aeromedical Retrieval in 2021 who have since progressed to the master program in 2022.

The international students bring a wealth of experience in dealing with some challenging and diverse situations to share with the domestic students – at our recent residential for Aeromedical Retrieval one of our students from PNG presented to the class a picture of a recent retrieval by his colleague in a canoe – a packaging for transport scenario that required some innovative and agile thinking.

Aeromedical Retrieval

The knowledge and skills required for health professionals in the field of aeromedical retrieval are quite unique. The NCCTRC recognised a need for a postgraduate course that addressed the fundamentals of aeromedical retrieval and logistics while addressing the specific knowledge and skills required in the diverse and austere environments that aeromedical retrieval may be required. In our region aeromedical retrieval is in varying stages of development. Our Pacific Scholarship students will use the knowledge and skills they learn to improve standards in their own systems.

The Graduate Certificate and Master of Aeromedical Retrieval were the first courses developed and the curriculum was built through a collaboration with key stakeholders and experts in the industry.

The faculty includes key clinicians and leaders from the NCCTRC, CareFlight NT, Royal Flying Doctor Service SA/NT and Medstar. The program includes unique modules on retrieval in challenging settings that provides the knowledge and perspective required for health emergency workers.

The Master program has several unique core units, of which two include a one-week residential workshop in Darwin. The first residential week on neonatal and paediatric retrieval was held in May 2022 with expert facilitators from our key partners and our students, joined by aeromedical health workers from partner organisations.


Health Emergency, Preparedness and Response

It has been a long-term vision for the NCCTRC to develop a postgraduate course for the disaster response health workforce.

The Graduate Certificate and Master in Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (HEPR) courses were developed in 2021 to address the need for courses designed specifically for health professionals involved in the clinical health response to disasters and emergency management.

The first cohort of students commenced in semester 1 of 2022 from a variety of backgrounds. The initial core units of Fundamentals and Natural Disasters are taking these students on a learning journey through health emergency national and international governance, frameworks and partnerships, the WHO emergency medical team initiative and health emergency preparedness and response principles and practice when faced with natural disasters.

The units are developed and delivered by faculty with direct experience working in the health emergency response frontline nationally and internationally, and include specialised content from NCCTRC leaders.

The course structure and content draw on the lived experience of the NCCTRC and the development of the AUSMAT capability over the last 17 years, and is continually updated to reflect new experiences, events, innovative approaches to new challenges and research translation.

The future

The Aeromedical Retrieval and Health Emergency Preparedness and Response courses are just the beginning.

The NCCTRC continues to work alongside CDU and Menzies to build academic pathways and collaborative research programs in order to remain global leaders in disaster response. It is incredibly rewarding to play a role in shaping the leaders of the future through our education programs.

CDU has exciting health infrastructure projects in development, with virtual and augmented reality capability to drive innovation in health training and education that we look forward to incorporating into our courses in the future.

For further information visit

AUSMAT; Australian Medical Assistance Team; NCCTRC; National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre

Prof Dianne Stephens OAM

Prof Dianne Stephens OAM graduated from University of Melbourne Medical School in 1988, completed her Anaesthesia and Intensive Care specialist training and moved to Darwin in 1998 as the first ICU Specialist in the Northern Territory and inaugural Director of Royal Darwin Hospital Intensive Care Unit.  As Director of ICU at RDH from 1998 to 2016, Prof Stephens provided leadership in best practice clinical care for the critically ill of the Northern Territory, built a research program, started an organ donation agency and contributed passionately to improving patient care throughout the hospital system. Her research interests include sepsis, melioidosis, critical illness, renal disease, Indigenous critical illness outcomes, communicating well with patients and families, and disaster medicine. In 2016 she took her family to live in Fiji for a sabbatical year and returned to Darwin in 2017 into the role of Medical Director of the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre (NCCTRC) drawing on her disaster medicine experience with the Bali Bombings, deployment into Iraq with the RAAF and working through Cyclone Winston in Fiji. Prof Stephens held NT Health leadership roles during the COVID 19 pandemic and now leads the academic and research partnerships portfolio for the NCCTRC including the development of postgraduate courses in aeromedical retrieval and health emergency preparedness and response at Charles Darwin University. In January 2022 Prof Stephens was seconded into the role of Foundation Dean of the CDU Menzies School of Medicine.