USA TODAY International Edition
In OnStar emergency, every second matters
Staff doctor helps train dispatchers to think fast, think smart
DETROIT – On any given day, OnStar advisers must be ready to call a tow truck or provide turn-by-turn directions. Or save a life or deliver a baby.
Take two years ago. Bryan Anta, 33, answered an OnStar emergency call from a man rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital when the baby started coming.
Anta had the father fully recline the front seat and coached him through delivering a son. That was the easy part.
Next came tying off the umbilical cord. That’s crucial, otherwise blood could drain too quickly into either the baby or the mother, causing serious complications. The emergency protocol suggests using a string or shoelace.
“The father didn’t have either,” Anta recalled.
As Anta’s adrenaline raged, he mentally climbed in the car and looked around. He had an epiphany: “Almost everyone has a cellphone charger, so he can use that cord to tie off the umbilical cord.”
When it worked, said Anta, “Everyone on the (OnStar) floor cheered.”
Handling medical emergencies
Anta credits the success of that day to OnStar’s staff doctor’s training.
That’s right, OnStar has its own staff doctor. Dr. Paul Stiegler, 66, spent more than three decades as a top-rated emergency room physician. For the past eight years, he has been OnStar’s medical director.
“I’m responsible for anything done medically to a patient” through OnStar, said Stiegler. “There are protocols for everything you tell a patient, from taking an aspirin” to administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation to delivering babies.
OnStar is General Motors’ in-vehicle driver’s assistance program that offers subscribers such services as automatic crash response, stolen-vehicle help, remote door unlock, navigation, vehicle diagnostics and hands-free calling. It also handles an array of medical emergencies.
In the United States and Canada, for which Stiegler is responsible, OnStar has about 5.5 million subscribers. Subscribers pay $24.99 a month or $240.90 a year for the OnStar Safety and Security plan.
Last year, OnStar emergency advisers handled about 115,000 calls in the U.S. and Canada, an OnStar spokeswoman said.
All it takes is a subscriber pushing the red emergency OnStar button in their car. That’s when Stiegler’s training kicks in and a dispatcher has scripts to help a person through a wide array of medical crises.
Finding Dr. Right
Cathy Bishop, OnStar’s emergency services senior manager, hired Stiegler in 2010.
“I was running a 911 center, and I had run an emergency medical dispatch program there. When I came to OnStar, I realized we needed to implement something similar,” Bishop said. “It was necessary to find an accredited physician to oversee the program because we’d be interacting with some 6,000 emergency centers across the U.S. and Canada.”
Dr. Jeff Clawson developed a series of questions, pre-arrival instructions and dispatch priorities. Clawson, medical director for the Salt Lake City Fire Department, recommended Stiegler for OnStar, Bishop said.
Saving a life
In 2013, OnStar became the first nonemergency service/private company to be recognized by International Academies of Emergency Dispatch as a Medical Accredited Center of Excellence.
OnStar follows established protocol from the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch in the medical instructions to gives. Beyond that, Stiegler’s job is to make sure the nearly 110 OnStar emergency advisers know what to do if a patient’s condition suddenly goes off script.
“How do you navigate that change?” Stiegler said. “That’s what we work on every week. If someone is awake, it’s predictable they could go unconscious, and what do you do then? It’s not that they don’t know what to do, it’s learning how to navigate the protocol itself.”
Effective role playing
Each month, Stiegler, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, drives his 2013 Chevrolet Equinox SUV to a nearby park. There, he hits the red OnStar button and acts out various emergency medical scenarios with the dispatchers for training.
“They run through the script with me, and I critique them,” Stiegler said.
Sometimes his acting is so realistic, park visitors rap on his window, asking whether he needs help. “I have to say, ‘No, thank you, I’m training. It’s fake,’ “Stiegler said with a chuckle.
He also reviews the 12-15 OnStar emergency life-critical calls each week from the two OnStar call centers in U.S. and Canada: One is in Charlotte, North Carolina, the other is in Oshawa, Ontario.
One honk for yes
In 2014, Anta got a crisis call. “Somebody was gasping for air and we couldn’t tell what was going on other than someone was in urgent distress,” he said. Anta was able to figure out the caller, a woman, was in the midst of a severe asthma attack and unable to speak. “I ended up communicating through her horn,” he said.
“When we get a call, we’re transporting ourselves into the vehicle,” said Anta. “We try to think of what the member is experiencing in the vehicle.”