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

An ongoing topic of discussion on EMS social media is the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  Wikipedia defines the Dunning-Kruger Effect as “a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability have illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is.”  Over the past few days, I’ve seen some great examples of EMS’s collective Dunning-Kruger Effect.  I also call these moments “not knowing what you don’t know” or “doubling down on dumb.”

The greatest exhibit that I can present to illustrate EMS’s exhibition of the Dunning-Kruger Effect comes from a self-promotion post by a critical care transport educator.  This educator, while promoting a post from JEMS about a Texas EMS system’s decision to adapt their protocols to prevent ventilator-induced injuries, breathlessly exclaims “ICU care begins in the STREETS! i expect my medics to be BETTER than EM and ICU attendings. ALWAYS. Period.” (Note: capitalization error was taken directly from the posting.) In the spirit of self-promotion that afflicts so many EMS “celebrity educators,” the post goes on to promote his recent conference appearances where he discussed using ultrasound to identify lung injuries and adjust ventilator settings.

Here’s the thing.  I don’t know how good or relevant his presentation is. And we all have to make a buck. And if you don’t promote yourself, no one else will.  But there’s probably not a single paramedic out there who’s better than an attending emergency medicine or critical care physician/intensivist.  Having said that and having my own experiences to guide my opinions, I will say that there are many paramedics who can assess a patient and rapidly treat a critically ill patient better than a physician without emergency medicine or critical care education.  Heck, that’s the  primary purpose of critical care/retrieval/flight paramedicine. When a patient is critically ill in a remote setting or an outlying hospital without specialist resources, that’s why you have critical care transport capabilities.

And yes, a critical care medic is probably better than an EM/ICU attending at certain technical skills.  Notice I said skills.  Most physicians don’t deal with vent settings.  Why?  Because in an ICU setting, there are others to help with such things. The physician has their eye on the big picture.  General Patton might not have been the tank driver than an individual sergeant was.  He didn’t have to be.  He did have to know exactly how to rout the enemy on the battlefield and accomplish large objectives.  Similarly, a HVAC technician probably knows more about fixing a faulty air conditioner than does a mechanical engineer. But I can almost guarantee you that the mechanical engineer knows more about how a HVAC system works and fits into a larger picture than a technician does. Likewise, I have a good friend who’s a state trooper.  I can assure you that he’s better than me, a lawyer, at knowing the intricacies of DWI law.  But he’s probably going to have a harder time putting all of the law together to get a complete picture.  Technicians, like many of us in EMS, excel at particular technical skills, hence why they’re technicians.  Professionals excel at the big picture, synthesizing multiple sources of information, acting on said information, and leading a team to solve that problem, almost like a conductor leading a symphony orchestra. (Heck, in the emergency room, look at how a resuscitation is run.  The leader, usually a physician, is rarely performing skills, but rather leading others in what needs to happen.)

Yep.  EMS often illustrates the Dunning-Kruger Effect with our belief in our own expertise.  But I can’t completely blame us.  Over the past few days, I’ve also seen ham-handed attempts by EMS educational programs to engage in education on EMS social media that illustrate President George W. Bush’s infamous question, “Is our children learning?” One community college based EMS education program shared a viral news video of a police officer being administered Narcan for an “exposure.”  Unfortunately, the initial posting by the educational program was posted without context and showed a breathing police officer being administered Narcan for a possible exposure to a stimulant, most likely methamphetamine. As even the lay public is learning, administration of Narcan is indicated for respiratory depression secondary to an overdose of an opiate/narcotic.  In other words, a conscious, breathing patient doesn’t need Narcan.  And an EMS educational program should definitely know better.

But that may not be the worst.  Late last week, a nationally known bachelor’s degree program in paramedicine shared a guest blog post from one of their students. The article was about the controversy of allowing paramedics to intubate.  Well and good.  The topic is definitely worthy of further discussion, especially considering the limited access that many EMS education programs have to clinical sites for live intubation practice. Yet, the article soon disappeared from that college’s social media.  Namely, many EMS providers pointed out multiple misspellings in the post along with dated studies cited (the most recent was over ten years old) and the lack of mention of high-fidelity simulation or more recent science supporting safe intubations through delayed sequence intubation by EMS providers.  Presumably, this blog post was reviewed and approved by the college’s faculty prior to going live. Sadly, when this kind of writing is presented by an educational institution, the writing serves only to reinforce negative perceptions of EMS by the rest of the healthcare community and remind them that the “ambulance drivers” aren’t yet at the same level.

The truth is that EMS does a good job at its core mission.  We excel at providing urgent and emergency care in the out of hospital setting and using a public safety skill set to do such. Our knowledge of the medical field is an inch wide (unscheduled out of hospital care) and a mile deep in that field.  Let’s own that field for ourselves and quit trying to prove how smart we are.  Inevitably, when we stray too far afield and when we keep calling attention to ourselves, we too often illustrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  These moments don’t advance EMS.  On the contrary, they remind us why everyone except for EMS providers get to make decisions about what happens to and for EMS.



  1. Wes, you mean you don’t actually think that we are doing what doctors do, only at 80mph?

    I recently released a document that was written by one of your students addressing paramedic intubation. In doing so, I forwarded the unedited file to our webmaster instead of the edited one. There were mistakes in grammar as well as outdated references provided, which I had the responsibility to catch…but did not. This was pointed out in several social media posts as well as on this blog, that, by the way, I greatly respect. His points were well taken. I make no excuses for this, but apologize for the embarrassment that this has caused. This was my fault entirely. I failed to live up to our own high standards. One of the things that I taught my children was to “make new mistakes everyday”. Doing so, you get the wisdom from mistakes made yesterday, but you don’t repeat them today! I made a new mistake and I’ll learn from it.”- Dr. Bill Young

    • theambulancechaser says:

      Exceptionally classy, Dr. Young. And there was no need to identify yourself. I didn’t identify the programs by name. I felt there were learning opportunities there that didn’t need a name attached to them.

  3. Gene Gandy says:

    Truth, Wes, and kudos to Dr. Young for being forthright, honest and humble.

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