More on the Four Year EMS Degree

So, I’m thinking more about the push for an EMS degree. In theory, I think it’s a great idea. But here’s a couple of observations.
The “other countries have it” argument. Those other countries also have a national healthcare system where EMS is integrated into healthcare. We don’t have that in the United States. Additionally, some of these other countries don’t have a tradition of mid-level practitioners that the United States does like advanced practice nurses and physician assistants, so in some of these cases, paramedic providers are stepping into roles that might be filled by other healthcare professionals here.
As a corollary to that, much of our EMS is provided by the fire service and by large private EMS companies. The fire service does EMS because it “has to” in order to maintain some justification for its existence. It has no interest in EMS save for staffing and budget. They’re not going to be advocates for EMS. As for the privates, they want low wages and lower educational standards, since they’ve got a long history of churning through employees and needing a steady inflow of new people.
Volunteers. Yeah, truthfully, it’s going to be hard to require a four year degree to volunteer on the ambulance. And unfortunately, there are parts of the USA where the local authorities have chosen not to fund an EMS system or there’s not sufficient people to do it. As the old adage goes, you get the EMS system you pay for.
Clinical outcomes. Everyone talks about evidence based medicine, including me, until they don’t like what it says. Is there any evidence that a more educated paramedic provider has better clinical outcomes. Australia and Canada both have college-educated providers and that’s become the norm there. Yet, these paramedics often have a more limited scope of practice than many locations in the United States.  Is there any evidence to indicate that American paramedics with a lower educational standard and (often) a broader scope of practice have worse clinical outcomes than their more educated foreign colleagues? As a further question, would a four year degree expand the current scope of practice for American paramedics?  As a liberal arts graduate myself, I believe the real value of a four year degree comes from the critical thinking and communications skills that a core liberal arts curriculum develops, but the majority of EMS degree advocates seem to believe that only a four year EMS specific degree is going to “save” EMS.

Actual logistics. Let’s assume that we do decide to put in a degree requirement for paramedics. Let’s further assume that it’s going to be a four year degree. How many degree programs exist? Are there sufficient faculty with an “appropriate” terminal degree in the field to satisfy the higher education accreditation authorities?  And on that note, what is an appropriate terminal degree for EMS?  Would we now end up inadvertently or intentionally creating a doctorate in EMS education?  Would current EMS educators be ineligible to continue what they’re already doing? The demand for nurses and nursing education has already created a shortage of nursing educators.  What would EMS education do to meet that demand on day one?

What would happen with an actual EMS degree requirement?  The skeptic and cynic in me says that most places wouldn’t have degree-educated paramedics.  Instead, the “powers that be” will do one of two things.  They will continue the current paramedic education and call it something else.  Or they will water that down even further and create another “paramedic light” certification. See also: Rhode Island’s EMT-Cardiac, New York’s Advanced EMT-Critical Care, NREMT Intermediate-99 (thankfully being phased out), Virginia’s EMT-Intermediate, or Iowa’s “paramedic” based on the NREMT I-99 standard (the actual “full” paramedic in Iowa was called a “paramedic specialist). And I will make you a bet that the majority of large EMS operations in this country will immediately default to providing service at this “paramedic light” level.


If we want degree educated paramedics and believe that’s for the best, we’re going to need to answer these questions.  And we’re also going to need find the funding for this. That probably means getting the primary payer of EMS services, the Federal government, to change Medicare/Medicaid so that EMS systems are paid for treatment and services rendered rather than just transport mileage.  But to do that means that we’re going to have to be more involved in the political process rather than the occasional appearance on a designated “lobby your politician” day where you wear a uniform that looks something like a third world dictator. The truth be told, increased EMS education and increased EMS reimbursement are like the chicken and the egg.  I don’t know which comes first.


I’d also point out something said by a former EMS director of mine.  He said he’s paying paramedics (and EMTs) what he can afford to pay them, not what he wants to pay them.  Again, until reimbursement changes, there’s no magic source of increased paramedic compensation, even with higher education.

Before you think I oppose an EMS degree, let me say that I don’t.  I believe that a four year degree is appropriate for a medical professional. I also don’t know that all of the advocates of an EMS degree have fully thought out the impact of such a requirement, even if gradually phased in.

I believe that our current America EMS system may be like Churchill’s definition of democracy. Churchill said that “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”  I believe that we may find this to be equally true for American EMS if we suddenly change our educational paradigm without considering the consequences.

These concerns and this rant was brought to you by a mostly proud graduate of a certificate granting paramedic program who also had a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts followed by a graduate and a professional degree. Higher education taught me to think. Paramedic education taught me to do. And coming into a paramedic program with a college degree taught me to think and consider what I do as a paramedic.

On The EMS Degree

So, because of a prominent fire chief’s article against EMS degrees, all of the usual EMS advocates are coming out for a gradual phase-in of a degree requirement. And it stands to reason that the fire service wants a low entry standard for EMS.  Most fire departments, especially the larger urban ones, see EMS solely to justify their existence.  Smaller fire departments often see taking on the EMS mission as a way to get increased funding, most of which will go toward the big red trucks and not the ambulance.  In many fire departments, the ambulance is actually called the “penalty box.”

In theory, I’m in favor of a degree requirement to be in EMS, especially at the paramedic level. More education can and should produce better paramedics. But with some experience in both consuming and regulating higher education, I know that giving power to higher education can have unexpected consequences.

So, since this train seems to be gathering some steam, let me throw out my conditional support.  I hope the advocates for EMS education and those accrediting college based EMS programs will listen before we hear about these issues arising once a degree requirement is truly and fully implemented.

  1. Grandfather current providers. I’m told that’s already in the works, but requiring everyone to back and upgrade to an EMS-specific degree would likely overwhelm each of these college based programs.  And for those who already have a bachelor’s or higher in a field outside of EMS, it would be unnecessarily repetitive.
  2. As a condition of accreditation, college-based EMS programs should be required to explicitly state how they plan to meet the needs of EMS students, especially those who are currently in the workforce. Such a commitment should address hours that the courses are offered, locations of the courses, transfer-ability of hours for non-EMS specific courses, and availability of clinical sites.  If you ask why I have a paramedic certificate instead of a paramedic degree, I’ll give you a simple answer.  The community college based program serving my area only offered the paramedic program on a full-time basis during daytime hours only.  With an outside career and already having three degrees, attending a certificate-only program was a no-brainer.
  3. Distance education is a must.  It stands to reason that those against an EMS degree will use the “poor volunteers” as a stalking horse to protect those who stand the most to benefit from poorly educated EMS providers — namely the fire service and the larger private EMS systems. Ensuring that EMS degree programs have distance learning AND nearby clinical rotation sites will ensure that rural and volunteer systems have their needs addressed — and eliminate one more argument against an EMS degree.
  4. In an ideal world, I’d like to see some sort of promise or commitment of an alternate entry degree program for those who already have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Such a program should be tailored to get people the scientific background they need for prehospital medicine (primarily anatomy and physiology) and the coursework necessary to function as a paramedic.
  5. Finally, the accrediting bodies need to ensure that these commitments and promises from higher education are kept ongoing. It will be entirely too easy to start backpedaling once the initial accreditation occurs.

I sincerely hope that those who advocate for an EMS degree take this in the spirit in which it’s meant — a reasonable way to ensure that we actually accomplish the goal of creating better educated paramedics and not solely in guaranteeing higher education a continued revenue stream. If we don’t plan now to address the needs of EMS providers and foresee unintended consequences, we are guaranteed to create even more of a shortage of providers (although some might argue that’s not an entirely bad thing) and creating a group of providers with significant student loan debt to go into a field not known for the highest wages.

We have one chance to get this right.  Let’s make sure that happens.

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