Why Doesn’t EMS Grow Up?

Social media is always full of EMS providers committing social media assisted career suicide (SMACS).  The latest was a perceived HIPAA violation where a medic was perceived to make fun of a cardiac arrest in a chicken coop, along with the associated chicken “byproducts.”  EMS Week always brings out the memes where the least bright and engaged of us in EMS demand to be thanked for our service, whether with free gifts or attention. We’re heroes, dangit. And EMS social media is always full of posts complaining about “misuse” and “abuse” of EMS and the emergency department of hospitals.

Of course, EMS and emergency department “misuse” and “abuse” are very subjective things. The general public doesn’t have the same definition of emergency that the average EMS provider has. Try to do the right thing and call your doctor after hours and you get a recording saying “If you’re having an emergency, hang up and call 911.” The problem is that no one defines emergency. Try to find after hours or unscheduled care for any sudden issue and you find that same or next day appointments are few and far between.  Urgent care hours often aren’t significantly better than many large clinics and that’s assuming that they even accept your insurance.  And if you do get in to see your doctor at their office, you can expect multiple follow-up visits for labs, imaging, and specialists for all but the most minor complaints.  Each of these are a separate absence from work and a separate insurance copay.  Is it any wonder that people go to a hospital emergency department where no appointment is needed and there’s virtually instant access to labs, imaging, and specialists.  As I like to say, the problem isn’t EMS or emergency department abuse, it’s that primary care has turned us into their after hours call coverage.

But that’s not the real point here.  The point here is that EMS seems to continue to remain in a teenager phase of not wanting to listen to the “adults” in the room who talk about educational standards and professionalism.  We continue to want to be “heroes” rather than caregivers and we demand attention and increased salaries while not doing anything to show why we deserve to be treated as a respected healthcare profession.  Why?

It’s simple.  The average career lifespan of an EMS provider, according to my quick Google search, is five years.  That’s right.  Five years.  It takes more than five years to be good at almost any career.  Like almost all of us, as a new EMT, then a new paramedic, I was full of all of the wrong answers.  I was full of dogma, misinformation, and the tendency to be way too eager about EMS. Fortunately, I was able to volunteer in some really first-rate EMS systems where I learned about medicine.  Also, the Internet and social media exposed me to some really smart people who actually cared about EMS and the medicine behind it.

However, the reality is this.  Many of the best and brightest in EMS leave for other careers in healthcare. And who can blame them? The opportunities in EMS pale in comparison to nursing, medicine, or as a PA, NP, or CRNA. With EMS’s short career half-life combined with our abysmal EMS education (Here, let me read the PowerPoints that the textbook publisher provides and I’ll throw in a war story on occasion.), we’ve created a revolving door of new providers who believe the dogma and misinformation.  They believe they’re going to be heroes and they’re disappointed when they’re providing geriatric primary care as opposed to “exciting and cool” trauma calls where they might “save a life.” (Spoiler alert:  Most of us in EMS don’t get the experience of being able to point to a specific life they’ve saved.  But if you do this right, you’ll get a lot of people to the right definitive medical care they needed to begin with.) And with our low barriers to entry, there’s little incentive to stick it out in EMS and make EMS great again. And while this revolving door continues, you continue to see EMS fail to progress and you see the same tired memes and complaints where we mock patients and our careers.  And when most are called to account for this behavior, they give the same tired excuses of how “you don’t know what it’s really like on the streets.”  Mind you, some of the worst offenders on EMS social media are virtually unemployable in EMS and don’t even work in an emergency setting.

To me, the heroes of EMS are the ones who’ve stuck it out; kept trying to improve EMS, even if it’s just their own EMS employer; and tried to teach good medicine to those coming in behind them.  If you actually took the time to take care of a sick person who’s septic and weak as opposed to bitching and moaning, you’re exactly who we need to stay in EMS.

What does the patient/client want?

I’m trying to put some complex and jumbled thoughts into words here, so bear with me. As some of you may know, I’ve dealt a ton with health issues for various family members over the years, especially over the last few months. One thing that I’ve seemed to notice is that too many people in healthcare think they’re helping when they’re substituting their own wishes and priorities for that of the patient and their loved ones. Further, many professionals in both medicine and law forget that the patient/client and their families have a life outside of and in addition to the matter currently being addressed. The outside world rarely pauses and often refuses to pause so that a patient/client or their family can reschedule the outside world at a moment’s notice all because someone feels that their little niche or agenda has to be addressed right this minute.

As a result, the patient and their family feel that the providers of all kinds, whether physician, nurse, therapist, or case manager, are dictating to them rather than caring for them. It can easily make the patient and family feel as if they have no control over matters relating to their care. Example: “You have to be here for a very meeting. Today.” Reality: Here’s the same discharge plan that we’ve been discussing for several weeks. 
 
People often feel an absolute loss of control of their care and their wishes. And when people feel they’ve lost control of their own affairs and that their wishes aren’t being heard, they’ll find another way to ensure they’re heard, whether in court or in filing a complaint with a regulatory agency. The nature of our healthcare and legal systems being what it is, the courtroom or administrative complaint is the only way that some clients/patients and their families feel that they will be heard.  (Free legal advice: it takes a lot less time and money to be nice up front and explain things early than it does to answer a lawsuit or an administrative complaint.)
 
Part of being a professional is in recognizing that the patient/client still maintains autonomy – the right to make their own decisions. Your job is, within the confines of the law and ethics, to help that patient meet their stated needs and goals. Being a professional means giving a patient/client the services and all of the information they need to make a good decision, then abiding by that decision and putting the patient/client first.  Heck, even as a lawyer, clients go against advice all of the time. Look how many criminal defendants insist on testifying in their own defense.  Look how many DWI suspects agree to take field sobriety tests and take the breathalyzer, even though they’re basically giving the evidence to convict themselves.  As I like to remind professionals of all sorts, people have the right to make bad decisions.  Fundamentally though, as a professional, we exist to provide services to our patients/clients in accordance with their wishes. 
 
This should ring true whether it’s medicine or law. And it’s a good prescription for limiting your involvement with lawyers to represent you. As another EMS colleague of mine says, “We can suggest, but forcing patients to do what they don’t want buys lawyers nice cars.”

“Dr. Dunning, I presume?” said Mr. Kruger.

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