At a national medical conference held in May in Indianapolis, a local EMS education program and its leading physician was honored.

The Society for Academic Emergency Medicine named local physician Dr. Seth Collings Hawkins, the leader of the month-long Burke County-based Carolina Wilderness EMS Externship medical school class, the recipient of its annual Clerkship Directors in Emergency Medicine “Innovation in Medical Education Award” for his work with the externship. The pool for this award is any emergency medicine rotation for medical students in the country, including major academic centers and universities, according to a release.

In addition to serving as medical director of Burke County EMS and Western Piedmont Community College, Hawkins is medical director of the N.C. State Park System and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest University.

The Carolina Wilderness EMS Externship is a month-long rotation for fourth-year medical students and resident physicians that follows a unique training model Hawkins envisioned, according to the release. It combines the resources of a rural/wilderness EMS system, a local community college, a community hospital system and a major research university. The hands-on education from field care providers is different from the traditional approach to medical education

“Dr. Hawkins has a passion for innovation, and his enthusiasm inspires the medical students and residents that rotate with him,” Dr. Luan Lawson, president of CDEM, said in the release. “His enthusiasm has been exemplified by the projects, publications, and careers of those he educates and mentors.

“Students learn their skills from actual field providers, rather than in a classroom of lecturers,” she said. “To model authentic collaborative care, the medical students and residents receive much of their training from special operations paramedics, rescue technicians, and park rangers with decades of experience in emergency response. While many organizations offer EMS rotations or wilderness medicine electives, none rival the Carolina Wilderness EMS Externship with its unique educational philosophy and real-life hands-on experiences.”

Hawkins said there are many factors about the Burke County area and the people who live there who make it the perfect place for the externship.

“Certainly, we have some very unique assets here in Burke County that truly do lead the nation for emergency training opportunities,” Hawkins said in the release. “High on that list is the historic and current role Burke County EMS plays in pioneering wilderness EMS medical care in all ways, and in the willingness of all the institutions in our county to work together and challenge paradigms and assumptions. This award belongs to everyone in Burke County who has supported our programming.”

Hawkins also noted the unique natural resources available in Burke County for wilderness training, the release said. These include the deepest gorge in the eastern United States (Linville Gorge), the largest state park (South Mountains State Park) and aquatic environments such as the Catawba and Linville rivers and Lake James.

University of North Carolina EMS Fellow Dr. Ben Smith, who was a UNC medical student when he rotated through the externship in 2013, was one of the students nominating the class for the national innovation award, according to the release.

“Dr. Hawkins’ concept of a horizontal hierarchy — that providers of different levels of training simply bring different skills to the table, but all providers should work together collaboratively to accomplish their goals — is truly innovative,” Smith said in the release in describing why the externship program is unique among medical training programs.

This concept is laid out in more detail in Hawkins’ new textbook “Wilderness EMS,” according to the release. And though it may seem like common sense, it is innovative in the medical field that often heavily values seniority and advanced medical degrees. It frequently is cited by extern medical students as one of the more distinctive concepts they learn in Burke County.

Students rotating through the externship are credentialed through Carolinas HealthCare System Blue Ridge and serve as instructors during the month for Western Piedmont Community College’s Emergency Medical Services Program, the release said.

“Not only are we proud to be a part of this program, we are grateful for the opportunity to expose our emergency medical services programs and students to the expertise of Dr. Hawkins and his medical students and resident physicians,” said Atticus Simpson, vice president for workforce development and external affairs at WPCC, according to the release. “This is well-deserved recognition for the program and given the fact that wilderness recreation in our area is growing, we look forward to continuing our work with Dr. Hawkins to train a workforce that will respond when people need them the most.”

One very unusual feature of the externship rotation is that none of the clinical time is spent inside a building such as a hospital, with all training oriented toward hands-on experiential education and training within the wilderness itself, the release said.

For more information about the externship, visit

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