An Open Letter to the EMS Media

Ambulance Chaser here.  Overall, I’m a huge fan of EMS media, both online and print, and making EMS information available online to our fellow professionals.  However, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in several of the EMS websites and publication.  The articles related to law and EMS legal issues tend towards sensationalism, inducing panic and fear amongst providers, click-bait, or stirring up business for the attorney writing the article.  Articles on liability tend to report on isolated, extreme cases out of trial court verdicts or settlements, which do not create binding law anywhere.  And more than one article has ended with information about how to contact the attorney-author for more solutions to the problem they happen to be writing about.  And we know that HIPAA and privacy issues are routinely invoked as bogeymen waiting to trap unsuspecting EMS providers, when we all know that realistic common-sense measures address most compliance issues.  But that doesn’t drive up “clicks” on the website nor clients to the lawyers to purchase a tailor-made compliance handbook and checklist.

And let’s not even talk about the constantly invoked specter of losing your license, getting sued, or gasp, going to jail.  Yes, EMS provider liability exists.  (Honestly, in my opinion, I think more providers should be sued for some of their acts.)  But the liability for EMS providers and EMS systems is a creature of state law in the overwhelming majority of cases.  Continually citing an attorney who practices in one of the worst possible states for tort liability is at best, fear mongering, and at worst, disingenuous.  It’s as self-interested as for a CPAP vendor to write an article on how and when to use CPAP.  Heck, most of the publications put that kind of obvious infomercial in a “special supplement” to the magazine.

And heck, we’re ignoring several of the big issues in the legal arena that continually “bite” EMS — wage and hour claims, employment discrimination claims, tort liability for vehicle operations, and compliance with state administrative regulations.  But of course, it’s much “sexier” to write about some case where some medic in West Cornfield got sued because of a bad outcome for the patient.  Posting an article like that, of course, brings out the legal experts who populate Facebook and social media.  And that drives up the clicks on the website.

For EMS to progress, we are going to have to develop our own core of “experts” in fields related to EMS, including law, politics, and policy.  At the risk of sounding exceedingly self-interested, I believe I fit into that role.  I am one of the few attorneys who’s actively practicing both law and paramedicine.  I bring a focus on addressing and managing risk to legal issues, including those in EMS.  Additionally, with much of my career being in state government, I have a real understanding of the political, regulatory, and advocacy processes that many in EMS do not possess. (If you’ve read my blog in the past, you know my thoughts on what’s right and wrong on our efforts at advocacy and politics.)

I’m not asking for a column or a position (although I’d certainly be open to it).  What I would respectfully request as an reader as well as a practicing EMS provider is that we demand the same excellence in media addressing EMS legal issues as we would clinical issues.

Sorry for what seems like a more self-interested post than usual, but, to a large extent, what the EMS media is publishing as legal education is just not what most providers need.


  1. Mike Smertka says:

    Please send me a link to the excellence in clinical issues…

  2. John Fekety says:

    I could not agree with you more. As a “recovering lawyer” as a frined put it, I practiced law for 15 years before I switched to EMS. From the first First Responder class I took all the way through paramedic school I was continuously amazed at what was passed off as “the law.” At one of tthe earliest conferences I went to a paramedic who worked for an insurance company made the statement that people had to be careful about committing gross negligence because you would be liable for punitive damages which meant you would go to jail. (For anyone who does not know, punitive damages is what racks up relatively small verdicts into the millions of dollars. Remember “Granny vs. McDonald’s”?) As Wes stated, the laws affecting EMS can vary so greatly from state to state that you may be in trouble for doing something in one state that you are required to do in another state. Can anyone say “spine board”? When I teach legal issues in EMS my main message is that if you use common sense, for the most part, you are going to stay out of trouble. Good job Wes!

  3. It’s also how we are supposed to teach EMS documentation. Instead of explaining that it’s not only part of good patient care, but it improves the professional image of EMS we are supposed to scream at the top of our lungs, “IF YOU DON’T GET THREE SETS OF VITAL SIGNS, START EVERY SENTENCE WITH THE WORD PATIENT, AND LIST EVERY ITEM YOU CARRY ON YOUR AMBULANCE YOU’LL GET SUED FOR EVERY PENNY YOU’VE EVER EARNED.”

    I spend a lot of time explaining to my bosses that this approach doesn’t work, but they still seem intent on using it. Someday they’ll probably fire me because I didn’t gig someone for not documenting that they gave the patient “psychological first aid” or some other bullshit.

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