Couple of Quick Thoughts

While perusing social media this morning, I noticed a couple of things that bear repeating.  Again.

The same professional EMS committee members are now taking public input on “EMS Agenda 2050.” yet we can’t always even get the core mission of EMS right — namely getting people to a hospital — ideally the right hospital and with the patient in no worse (and hopefully better) condition than we found them. I’d like to fix EMS 2018 before we turn EMS Agenda 2050 into another document forced upon us by the same people who largely created the current mess.

Everyone continues to look for a single silver bullet that will fix EMS.  Education. Increased reimbursement. The latest equipment.  Some buzzword usually involving “data.”  EMS in the United States is a local responsibility provided for in a variety of models.  Imposing and implementing one “magic solution” won’t work.  What works in a compact city like Boston with multiple academic medical centers in a small area isn’t going to apply well to rural Nevada where a small hospital is an hour’s drive.  The reason why our nation’s Founding Fathers embraced federalism is in recognition of the simple truth that one size fits all solutions from a central government rarely work. (See also: IRS, “Affordable Care Act,” and the Post Office.)

The only thing I see more than people in EMS routinely advocating for us to take people to destinations other than hospitals are stories of EMS getting refusals wrong and a patient getting sicker or dying. I say this after seeing, just this week, an article about a child whose parents called EMS to take their child to the ER for the flu, EMS obtaining a refusal, and the child ultimately dying.  Was EMS responsible?  We don’t yet know at this point.  But I do know that taking a patient to definitive care is a large part of what we do.

Most ER physicians will tell you that the hardest decision they make is the decision to admit a patient. That’s coming from a physician with access to labs and imaging and specialist consults. I’m not ready to trust someone with (at most) two years of education, minimal diagnostic equipment, and a short assessment to make the decision that going to the hospital isn’t a good idea.  Yes, there are obvious cases that we can consider “abuse” of the emergency care system. But the lawsuits will result (and they WILL happen) from the patient with vague symptoms who’s relying on the judgment of the lowest common denominator of providers who just wants to get back to their station.

And that brings me to my final thing worth repeating today.  An EMS system is only as good as its worst provider on their worst day.

Feel free to refer back to this post in 2019.  I’m sure it will remain just as relevant.

It’s Not EMS Abuse; It’s EMS Use

There’s a lot of talk about “EMS abuse” by EMS providers. I’d submit there’s a lot of EMS “use.” We’ve done a good job of telling people to call 911, but we’ve failed in telling them what an emergency is, what EMS is, and what EMS can do for them.

From the days of William Shatner and his overly dramatic voice, we were told to call Nine One One. The public has an idea, that we’ve promoted, that if you call, a group of well trained professionals will show up and fix any problem at any hour. Truth be told, that’s not too far off.  With the possible exception of 24 hour plumbing and some food delivery options, we are about the only people doing that who are actually available 24/7.  And unlike those others, we don’t expect payment at the time of service.

Until we have better alternatives, involving EMS, primary care, and the public safety net, we’re going to continue to have EMS “use.” How many of us have spent the time actually educating the public about who we are and what we do?

In addition to my EMS career, I’m also an attorney. I find it amazing how many educated people have virtually no idea of what EMS does or how it works, aside from help coming if you call 911. I regularly run into professionals in other fields, even including the medical field, who don’t know the difference between an EMT and a paramedic.  We’ve done a terrible job of promoting EMS and explaining who we are and what we do.  The idea of EMS “abuse” is a direct result of our success in telling the public to “call 911 for an emergency.”  And the rest of the medical community uses us to punt to.  Call a physician after hours and their recorded message is likely to say, “If you’re having an emergency, hang up and call 911.” The challenge is that EMS and the public most likely define “emergency” differently.

Back when I was in third grade in Austin, we had a week in school called “Be A Medic Week.”  We learned some basic first aid concepts, how to call 911, and got a tour of the ambulance.  (FYI, back in the early 1980s, some of the ambulances here were still low top vans.) We need to be doing the same sort of education with the public as a whole.

It’s time to show our ambulance to the public and introduce ourselves.  This is what EMS Week should be about — not seeing which ER is providing us with free pizza. (Besides, the good pizza was already eaten by day shift or the respiratory therapists.) Let’s do some actual community outreach, promote ourselves and our profession, and educate the public and even the other healthcare professionals. Who knows?   Maybe it might lead to some increased recognition, better understanding of who we are, and maybe even some increased confidence in EMS.  Maybe even some increased pay eventually.

Right now, there are too many people who think that ambulance driver, EMT, and paramedic are interchangeable terms.  What are you doing to fix that? Fix that and it’s quite likely that current EMS “use” will correct itself.  I’m tired of people being afraid or unwilling to call us for their actual emergencies because they didn’t think we could help.

Lets have that conversation with the public about who we are, what we do, what’s on the ambulance, and how we’re trained. People should know that their EMS system, particularly if it’s staffed at the paramedic level, is often capable of providing the same care as you’d initially receive in the emergency department, will get you to the right emergency department for your condition, and have the ability to consult with a physician if needed.  Texas regulations refer to a paramedic equipped and staffed ambulance as a “mobile intensive care unit.” That’s a very appropriate description for the two systems where I’m fortunate to work. We have the training, equipment, and medications to provide assessment and care that approaches emergency department and ICU care.  I’m even more fortunate to work with colleagues who recognize that it’s a privilege and public trust to be able to walk into your home or business to care for you or your loved ones.

It’s a conversation that’s long overdue and one that I’d be proud to have with any of you.

Seriously, if you have questions about EMS, ask one of us.  And if you even think you’re having an emergency, call us.

Stay In Your Lane

Years ago, my parents called the same plumber anytime they had a plumbing issue.  Norman the plumber knew all about plumbing. Norman didn’t claim to know anything about carpentry, electrical work, or appliance repair. Norman didn’t claim that with a few more hours of continuing education, an extra certificate class, and his expertise as a plumber that he could do the job of a general contractor perfectly well.  Sounds ridiculous that a plumber, without anything outside of his experience as a plumber, would claim that he’s perfectly capable of being a general contractor, doesn’t it?

Yet, my friends, that’s exactly what we’re doing in EMS on a daily basis. At least in the United States, EMS exists because of the 1966 “white paper” entitled “Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society.” As a result of this paper, the United States began to develop an EMS system and trauma centers to care for the most severely injured patients. Around this time, emergency medicine began to emerge as a separate, distinct specialty of medicine.  Wikipedia (don’t laugh, it’s becoming a more respected source of information) defines emergency medicine as “responsible for initiating resuscitation and stabilization, starting investigations and interventions to diagnose and treat illnesses in the acute phase, coordinating care with specialists, and determining disposition regarding patients’ need for hospital admission, observation, or discharge.”  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines EMS as “dedicated to providing out-of-hospital acute medical care, transport to definitive care, and other medical transport to patients with illnesses and injuries which prevent the patient from transporting themselves.”

So, in short, EMS exists to take care of the acutely sick and injured and get them to the right hospital.  As I’ve defined it before, EMTs and paramedics should excel at the delivery of out of hospital urgent and acute care.  Further, we should excel at getting the right patients to the right hospital. In other words, we should know better than to take a patient that might need an ICU bed to a rural critical access hospital.  Likewise, the patient who demands to go across town to the hospital where their primary care physician “has privileges” might be just as well suited to go to the closest appropriate facility as it’s virtually unlikely that the patient will be admitted by their primary care doctor.

I expect a good paramedic to be able to provide advanced cardiac care, assess a patient, provide pain management, manage an airway, and get the patient to the right destination safely, among other things.  I don’t expect a paramedic, even with an additional “certificate course,” to be competent too far afield from emergency and acute medicine. While it’s true that EMS providers are seemingly a logical choice for any form of out of hospital care, the truth is that our current education model and skill set leave us ill prepared to deal with sub-acute complaints or routinely chronic conditions. It’s the definition of the old axiom “stay in your lane” – mind your business and keep moving forward.

Otherwise, when we keep telling EMS providers that the future is in mobile integrated healthcare, but don’t provide EMS providers the formal education necessary to be doing nursing and home health care, we end up fouling up and losing sight of what we do best — care for urgent and acute patients.  In a purely “hypothetical” case, you might end up missing an obviously septic patient because you ignored what the patient’s family had to say and kept suggesting “social work and home health care” because the patient also had chronic health issues.

When it all comes down to it, EMS has a basic mission.  Getting a patient into the healthcare system, ideally no worse than we first encounter our patient.

Which brings me to my final point.  By the time that EMS has been called, patients and their family members are already stressed and potentially frightened. If you’ve added to their stress, fear, or anxiety, you’ve failed the patient and haven’t been a good advocate for EMS.

A Couple Of Reviews

In the spirit of keeping up with my professional responsibility to keep my paramedic certification up both for National Registry and Texas, I’ve been attending some continuing education lately.  As such, I thought I’d pass on a few comments about some of the hours I’ve attended in the month of November.

I was fortunate enough to attend and speak at the Texas EMS Conference in Fort Worth. Fort Worth is one of my favorite downtowns in Texas.  It’s clean, relatively compact, and there are plenty of hotel and food options within walking distance of the convention center. More importantly, the Texas EMS Conference is one of the best conference out there hands down.  The Texas conference provides up to 15 hours of continuing education over the Monday – Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  Additionally, there are preconference classes available the weekend before. The Texas conference also has an exhibit hall that rivals the two national conferences. Unlike the national conferences, though, Texas really strives to educate attending EMS providers. While Texas presents a few of the usual national conference speakers known more for entertainment than educational content, the Texas conference really strives to educate and highlights quite a few local providers and educators whose content is first rate.  This year seemed to have even more of a focus on care under fire, with presentations by Fort Worth police officers, a trauma surgeon who responded with the Dallas Police Department to mass shooting in downtown Dallas, and a former Army Ranger physician assistant now attending medical school.  Unlike many conferences, these presentations on care under fire were thoughtful and heavy on current medicine — and with very little emphasis on “heroism” or the “thank you for your service” mindset that often permeates the EMS community.  Truth be told – the Texas conference is a great bargain for a phenomenal mix of continuing education and networking. Additionally, both downtown Fort Worth and the Stockyards district offer some great food and entertainment venues, including Texas music and food.

On a different note, I needed to knock out a half hour of continuing education on anaphylaxis for my National Registry Paramedic certification. I decided to find an online resource to count for this.  And in the end, I made a huge mistake. I decided to use JB Learning, who offers a half hour online class on anaphylaxis. The course material itself, even though billed for advanced life support providers, was beyond basic.  There was heavy emphasis (and rightfully so) on the use of epinephrine.  There were brief mentions of nebulized bronchodilators and intravenous fluid boluses.  And zero mention of an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), let alone a H2 blocker as some clinically aggressive EMS systems use — and as supported by evidence.

If that was the only issue, I’d shrug my shoulders and just accept the danged half hour of continuing education and move on.  But the platform itself is beyond miserable.  JB Learning now markets all of its continuing education, even when sold separately, through it’s “Recert” platform, which is marketed as a one stop solution for EMS providers’ continuing education and tracking. (Truth be told, keeping up with your continuing education is a basic responsibility of being licensed in any profession. If you need that much help in tracking your hours, I’m not sure I want to trust you with the responsibilities of being a healthcare professional.) So, in short, you pretty much have to use JB Learning’s “Recert” platform.  And that platform requires a skills verification — which isn’t mentioned until you’re into the course.  After a bit of consulting with tech support, I’m not sure whether this half hour is or isn’t going to work for me, especially since I haven’t been able to go back and download the skills verification, which supposedly I’ll upload and then, in theory, get a certificate.

For years, Apple prided itself on the slogan “It just works.”  To my friends at JB Learning, who are trying to market themselves as a one stop solution for both initial and continuing education for EMS professionals, “It just works” doesn’t apply to y’all yet. On the positive note, I’m only out $6.95.  On a negative note, I’ve spent more than the half hour of continuing education in terms of getting a certificate for continuing education credit — and I still don’t have one.  As the old adage says, let the buyer beware.

All Politics Is Local: Or an EMS Labor Union and the Kerfuffle

There’s been a lot of discussion on EMS social media about the contract between the City of Austin and the Austin/Travis County EMS Employees’ Association (AKA: The Union) lapsing. I’m not a medic for ATCEMS, but I feel compelled to wade in as an Austin resident, a paramedic, a public sector employee, a friend of many of the medics in the system, and as someone who was a first responder within the system. I’m going to give this my best effort and will probably not gain any friends as a result. But that’s ok – as the old joke goes – lawyers have feelings.  Allegedly.

This is a system that’s had issues for a while. And this isn’t solely a greedy public employees’ union issue.  Nor is it an issue of terrible management. The truth be told, it’s a horrendous combination of lousy union leadership and equally inept city leadership.  The union leadership has sold its membership one scheme after another as the “one big fix” to the challenges of working in EMS.  I remember several years ago when there was entirely different leadership at the union, EMS management, and even city management.  A paramedic ran for the union presidency on a promise of replacing the current (at that time) 56 hour work week of 24 hours on and 48 hours off with a guaranteed 48 hour work week – for the same pay.  Needless to say, neither EMS nor city management were enamored with the idea of cutting hours for the same pay.  Then the union president raised the issue of “safety.”  That’s an issue that, once raised, can’t be recalled. At that point, the city hired a consulting firm to examine EMS scheduling and the determination was made that many of the stations were too busy to be on 24 hour schedules.  To this date, scheduling and station assignments remain one of the biggest challenges at ATCEMS. A variety of schedules have been tried and active fatigue management policies are now in place.  While the fatigue management policies are welcome and needed (especially after the death of a respected ATCEMS captain who fell asleep while driving), the reality is that all of the scheduling fixes fail to address the underlying problem – a busy EMS system that does not have sufficient staffing or crews, especially in the areas of highest call volume in the center of the city.

The call volume in central Austin also impacts other parts of the system.  Many of the ambulances from the other parts of Austin have to transport to hospitals in central/downtown Austin.  Once those trucks become available as they leave the hospital, they are assigned calls in central/downtown Austin.  The crews call this “getting sucked into the vortex.” Meanwhile, the more outlying areas of the city are without their ambulance – all because no one recognizes the 800 pound gorilla in the room – the central part of Austin with its socioeconomic demographics, the entertainment district in downtown, and two homeless shelters less than two blocks from the entertainment district.  The solution was, is, and remains additional EMS resources in central/downtown Austin.  No other solution is a solution.

And let’s talk about the outlying areas some. Pretty much since the EMS system was created in Austin, Austin has supplied paramedic-level transport for all of Travis County.  Each of the fire departments in Travis County (including Austin FD) have provided first responder services under the protocols and medical direction of ATCEMS. In THEORY, ATCEMS protocols allow for the “credentialing” of these fire departments’ advanced/intermediate EMTs and paramedics to function at their state certification level. The reality is that the credentialing process is very similar (and probably rightfully so) to the field training process that ATCEMS medics go through to be “credentialed” for independent practice.  In actuality, the process exists largely on paper. The process is too long and involved for many departments to commit an employee for this extended period.  And it serves ATCEMS to limit the number of providers above the EMT level.  As a result of this process, its lack of transparency and clear standards, and the underlying motives in limiting the number of advanced providers, ATCEMS has alienated many of the fire departments in the county.  Pflugerville was alienated to the point of creating its own fire-based EMS system and completely separating from ATCEMS.  Two other departments have their own medical direction now for paramedic-level first response.  This failure reflects right back on both ATCEMS leadership and ATCEMS union leadership.  In fact, one union president told Pflugerville that his job was to protect his members. Granted, it’s probably the truth, but at least be politic enough to couch it in terms of patient safety, patient care, and patient outcomes.

If management deals in good faith with employees, there’s little hue and cry for a union, much less civil service protections. Witness the number of Japanese auto plants in the US where workers have actively rejected unionization attempts by the United Auto Workers.  ATCEMS has had a history of employee discontent and morale issues.  I know paramedics from the early 1990s who complained about being assigned to a mandatory overtime shift at the busiest station in the system (and one of the busiest in the US) right after working that same station for the previous 24 hours. As the morale problems continued and several provider suicides occurred, Austin’s previous medical director was replaced by a new medical director who came in from the outside.  One of his first of many arrogant moves was to push for ATCEMS to hire EMTs because he believed that there are too many paramedics in EMS and he didn’t believe there was evidence to support advanced life support providers.  This mindset was that of a physician who seemed to define EMS success by cardiac arrest statistics alone. A new “Medic I” position was created where anyone with an EMT certification or higher would be eligible to apply.  After a period of 1-2 years as a “Medic I,” those with a paramedic certification would be eligible to promote to the “Medic II” position as a paramedic-level provider. Needless to say, this change increased the workload on system-credentialed paramedic providers and also turned off many experienced providers from applying to work for ATCEMS.

While ATCEMS has since replaced the medical director with a much more progressive and aggressive medical director from the Houston area, the Medic I/Medic II model is now virtually codified as a result of ATCEMS moving to civil service. As a result of the continued workplace discontent, the latest “solution” from the union was “civil service.” Civil service would provide for state laws (or a negotiated contract with the city) to govern employee relations including hiring, promotions, and discipline. It has also codified a management team and culture where, other than the department director and medical director, all promotions are from within the department.  And this is a department that is so insular that it still believes its own PR machine about how progressive it is.  In fact, until the mid 2000s, the ATCEMS patch still had “System of the Year 1985” on it.  While other EMS systems have added paralytics for intubation and multiple other drugs and interventions, the bureaucratic inertia of ATCEMS has turned the previous clinical excellence into just another large urban EMS system, albeit without the requirement to become a firefighter. And just like most fire departments where the IAFF rules the roost, the union was created as a result of management strife, but requires on continued strife to justify “this is why we need a union.”

And now the employees are without a contract.  And “this is why we need a union.”  And so it goes.

The Challenge of EMS Conferences

I attended EMS World Expo last week in Las Vegas and had a good time.  I had the opportunity to reconnect with several of my good friends in the Las Vegas emergency medicine world.  I got to see a bunch of people who I only see at these conferences and meet several people who I previously only knew through the Internet. And I ate like a king.  (If you know me away from the blog, you can easily find my Yelp reviews with some incredible food suggestions for Sin City.)  And being as it was Vegas, well, I had fun in Vegas.

But here’s the sad, but honest truth.  I learned very little.  I did come away with one huge new thing — apparently, there’s now an EZ-IO placement in the distal femur for pediatric patients.  But the rest of the presentations were pretty “ok.”  There’s not a lot of new information out there.  And sadly, in a presentation on recent research, a renowned EMS scholar presented information on fluid resuscitation in sepsis that is not only not current, but may even be contraindicated by more recent research.  Sadly, some of the best airway education was occurring in the exhibit hall practicing the SALAD technique with disciples of anesthesiologist and EMS airway physician Dr. Jim DuCanto.

I wasn’t going to gripe about this until seeing my friend and EMS airway ninja post some excellent education online regarding surgical airways and the need to rapidly move to a surgical airway. I asked myself why a presentation like this didn’t occur at a major EMS conference.  I came up with three reasons.

  1. Audience.  Truth be told, not everyone in EMS wants to learn the most current medicine.  There’s a large, loud contingent of folks who want to learn the bare minimum to maintain certification and/or pass the test. “Meets minimum standards” is a mantra in EMS.  And as we’ve all heard me gripe before, you can never go wrong in overestimating the number of people in EMS who are in it for the hero status as opposed to the medical professional status.  See also: EMS t-shirt sales.
  2. EMS celebrities. Truth be told as well, there are certain speakers on the EMS conference circuit who are known quantities.  They’re entertainers first and educators last.  They fill the seats and are like flypaper attracting the “meets minimum standards” crowd.  These people can speak on any topic, present dated or questionable information, and have limited expertise on the topic.  But because they’re funny and/or appeal to the lowest common denominator, EMS conferences continue to invite them as speakers.  Why?  Because they put butts in the seats.
  3. Timing. Most of these conferences put out calls for presentations almost a year before the conference commences. As such, the most current research and practice doesn’t always make it in time.

If you wonder why I spend so much time on EMS social media and blogs, I will close things out with a quote from Dr. Joe Lex, the intellectual godfather of #FOAM.

If you want to know how we practiced medicine 5 years ago, read a textbook.
If you want to know how we practiced medicine 2 years ago, read a journal.
If you want to know how we practice medicine now, go to a (good) conference.
If you want to know how we will practice medicine in the future, listen in the hallways and use FOAM.

And if you don’t know #FOAM, it’s likely you’re already a step behind the EMS education curve.

Do Something!

Late Sunday night, a madman killed people in Las Vegas.  Predictably, both sides have drawn their lines in the sand and demand that politicians “DO SOMETHING!”  Those on the left demand that politicians enact gun control and hector, cajole, shame, and belittle those who don’t believe as they do.  Conservatives argue that gun control doesn’t work and that the solution doesn’t include disarming the public.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I tend more toward the conservative view of things. I also have a Texas license to carry a firearm and do carry.  But I’m also a realist.  I doubt that a person carrying a handgun can stop a situation like in Las Vegas where a rifle is being shot from a high place at a large crowd.  Individual street crimes may be a different situation, but even in those cases, a “good guy with a gun” can only do so much.

So, we all want to “DO SOMETHING.” Here’s my opinion.  You can absolutely do something above and beyond “thoughts and prayers,” changing your profile picture on Facebook, or contacting your politicians for or against guns.  First things first. Learn some basic life-saving skills.  Learn CPR.  Learn basic first aid.  Learn bleeding control — including how to use a tourniquet.  And make sure you have current supplies at your home and/or in your car.  Some basic gauze, gloves, and a tourniquet can go a long way to make sure that a violent assault doesn’t become a homicide.  As an added bonus, your knowledge of CPR and first aid is valuable in other situations above and beyond shootings.  Car wrecks and sudden cardiac arrest kill just like a shooting — and a concealed firearm isn’t as useful in those situations. There are plenty of first aid and CPR classes out there.  If you can’t find one or have questions, feel free to ask me — or ask your local EMS organization.  You do know who your local EMS organization is, right?

Next.  You do need to contact your politicians.  But not necessarily about guns.  Ensure that your community has a well-funded EMS system and trauma facilities. Too many communities rely on the “low bidder” to provide 911 response.  Too many communities are holding bake sales so that their volunteer fire and EMS organizations can have the bare minimum equipment.  We can always have a debate about the role and scope of government and taxes.  However, all but the most radical anarchists or extreme libertarians would agree that a fundamental role of government is to send help when you call 911.  A high-quality EMS system is not a luxury.  Whether a car wreck, a mass shooting, or chest pain, the fact remains that early access to definitive care saves lives.  An Emergency Medical Services system does exactly that. For all of the comments on social media about so-called “First World Problems,” Americans should demand a quality EMS system that ensures access to clinically current, professionally delivered, compassionate medical care 24/7.

And if you still want to “DO SOMETHING,” consider getting training and volunteering.  The reality is that you might be near a volunteer fire or EMS department that needs people and just might even train you.  A basic first responder course is often less than 80 hours.

These are the steps you can take to “DO SOMETHING.”  Or you can keep changing your profile picture on Facebook.  The choice is yours.  Choose wisely.

Longhorn Student EMS

The University of Texas has decided not to provide insurance or legal protection to a student EMS group on campus.  Since this is my alma mater, I felt compelled to share my $0.02 with University of Texas President Gregory Fenves.  If you feel compelled to reach out, do so (and keep it polite).  He can be emailed at [email protected]

Dear President Fenves:

It’s rare that I find myself writing an email that hits multiple areas of who I am – a Texan, a Longhorn (BA 1996), an attorney, and a paramedic.  But the decision of the University to deny funding for Longhorn EMS’s liability insurance and/or assumption of liability hits home for me.

The University of Texas and the University of Texas System are blessed with many outstanding attorneys, both of counsel to the University and the System and throughout the faculty.  I would never take away from their counsel or guidance, but I would note to you that the liability for the provision of emergency medical services in Texas, especially by a governmental entity, is exceptionally limited. Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Codes §§74.151-74.154 and Texas Health and Safety Code §773.009 provide broad protection and multiple Texas appellate court decisions have broadened said liability protection.  As such, I would assert that the legal liability for the provision of emergency medical services, particularly at the EMT/basic life support level, is exceptionally limited and that the costs of any liability insurance would reflect such limited exposure. In short, this concern about legal liability on behalf of the University is a red herring at best.

University spokesperson Bird’s statements that the University wants students to be students and not to take on potentially dangerous professional responsibilities is, at best, ignorant of many students who are already certified as EMS personnel or might even be in the armed services.  Wanting students to be students first ignores that many students already are working including as employees of the University. Several UT students already work as emergency medical services providers in other venues even including as employees of the organizations that provide EMS coverage for University athletic events.  Additionally, many students of the University already volunteer in many campus organizations, several of which provide direct services for the University. And finally, there’s the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room that shatters the illusion that students should be only students – namely, men’s and women’s intercollegiate athletics. I am pretty certain that the time involved to become an emergency medical technician and remain active with a student EMS organization is a small commitment in comparison to the time that student athletes spend in service to the University.

From a public safety standpoint, having an on campus EMS system makes sense.  Even on an urban campus like the University, EMS response time takes time. The closest Austin Fire Department stations to campus, Station 2 on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Station 3 on West 30th Street do not have ambulances.  The closest ambulance, if available for assignment, is Medic 3, located in the parking garage of the old Brackenridge Hospital.  At best, there is a delay in getting emergency care to campus.  Having responded to the University campus as an EMS provider, I can tell you that calls on campus are a challenge, especially in getting emergency resources to the right location because of the combination of obstacles in terms of vehicle access, determining the right location, and getting access/entry into University buildings, many of which are secured.  In a critical emergency such as cardiac arrest, severe allergic reaction, or uncontrolled bleeding, having a trained set of hands on scene sooner can, will, and does regularly make a significant difference in patient outcome.  In some cases, that difference in patient outcome is life as opposed to death.  Waiting for City of Austin resources and also waiting for someone from the University to provide access to a building just doesn’t make sense. And in case of a severe emergency or disaster, having “all hands on deck” and a force multiplier in the form of a University recognized and accredited group of EMS providers can and does make a difference.

The University has always encouraged public service.

As an undergraduate government major, my spirit of public service and engagement was encouraged and nourished by Dr. Janice May’s classes on state government and her public service internship program which gave me a foundation and prepared me for a career in state government. Especially as the University develops its own medical school and expands its involvement in all aspects of healthcare, encouraging a student volunteer EMS program is a no-brainer decision.  Encouraging students to volunteer and to become engaged in healthcare is, plain and simple, an outgrowth of the University’s mission to educate.  Such a program should be encouraged, not stopped. Many notable physicians and healthcare leaders got their first exposure to EMS, medicine, and volunteerism through campus EMS programs.

Texas A&M University has long had a student-run EMS.  In fact, Texas A&M University has student-run EMS for university events as well as a separate EMS program that provides paramedic-level ambulance coverage for the university campus as well as providing mutual aid backup coverage to the cities of Bryan and College Station.  Rice University has a student-run EMS program operating under the supervision and guidance of their campus police department. Rice’s EMS program operates as a campus first response organization, providing advanced EMT level care until the arrival of the Houston Fire Department’s ambulances. Colleges and universities throughout the United States have campus EMS organizations.  In fact, there’s even a National Collegiate Emergency Medical Services Foundation that exists to guide and promote campus EMS programs.  At the University of Texas, we are a “University of the first class,” as described by Article 7, Section 10 of the Texas Constitution.  More bluntly, to quote our former athletic director, DeLoss Dodds, “We are the Joneses.”  The University of Texas shouldn’t take a back seat to anyone. And that includes providing emergency medical services to the University community and its visitors.

Bluntly, the idea of a student EMS on the Forty Acres has grown in fits and starts.  Good intentions alone are nowhere near enough. And some of the attempts to provide this service have been, at times, amateurish. That is why it’s even more imperative for the University to recognize, fund, and support this effort, if for no other reason than to provide the resources of the University to supervise these students and ensure that what goes on with this organization is a credit to and not a harm to the University.

If I may offer my services to you, the University, or these students, I stand ready to do so – as a volunteer.  I am a Texas licensed attorney, a Texas licensed (and nationally registered) paramedic, a Texas EMS instructor, and a proud Texas Ex.

I encourage you to reconsider the University’s decision and strongly commend you to take steps to help this fledgling EMS program get the right start it needs.

Respectfully submitted (and Hook Em Horns!).

 

Part of being a clinician

Today, I heard from a good friend of mine who happens to be a good paramedic out of state.  They were telling me about issues with a family member who’s in the hospital and in poor condition.  Part of this involved the communication from the hospitalist who asked if the family member had a do not resuscitate order because the family member in question is “very sick” and without a DNR order, the patient’s ribs would be broken during CPR and “her insides would be messed up.”

I’ve dealt with similar conversations before both as a medical provider and as a family member.  Without going into my rant against hospitalists (who don’t know the patient outside of the hospital, rarely have an idea as to the patient’s baseline, and are often the bottom of barrel clinically and academically), this is completely unacceptable.

However, I will say that this is how people in medicine get sued. Not because their medicine hurt or helped. But because they have zero idea how to communicate with people. There are way too many physicians who have a pure science background and see patients as lab values on paper. They see patients and their families as a distraction. Likewise, there are way too many in EMS who are bitter because they were promised a chance to race the reaper and save lives and taking care of sick people isn’t “what they signed up for.” I am far from religious and definitely not Christian, but the verse from the Gospel of Matthew says it all. “I was sick and you visited me.” Ultimately, that’s what being a clinician is about. Taking care of sick people. Not flashing lights or even geeking out over lab values. And caring (and dare I say ministering) for the sick means caring for their family too.

I see way too many physicians who have a gift for the sciences and not a gift for communication.  I see way too many in EMS who can improvise a solution to make MacGyver proud but who make Chuck Norris look sensitive and compassionate. Medicine is not a pure science, no matter what anyone says.  It’s a profession.  Whether you’re a brand new EMT or a tenured medical school professor with subspecialty certification, you’re a professional using your scientific knowledge to solve human problems.  And human problems require interacting with humans.  Part of that interaction means communicating with other people, not all of whom you may like or who you may think are as smart as you are or even worth your time.

And the human factor in any profession, especially including medicine, is why professions aren’t mere sciences.  Yes, there’s a ton of science in medicine.  It is the foundation for much of what we do.  But we apply this knowledge to help others.  And helping others goes significantly beyond acid-base balances, covalent bonds, thermodynamics, or gas laws. It’s about demonstrating a bit of compassion and empathy.

You don’t necessarily learn those things in a science lab.  You learn them from interacting with others.  You learn these things in a liberal arts classroom where your views about the world are challenged, where you learn to defend your views, where you learn to maybe change your views, and most importantly, where you learn to communicate and get along with others.

Medicine — at any level — is ultimately a people profession.  If you’re not comfortable with people, you’re not likely to succeed.  It’s why EMS clinical evaluations are supposed to include an “affective domain” aspect.  And this is why I think that the constant drumbeat for more “science” classes in EMS also needs to be tempered with more classes in English, psychology, sociology, history, geography, and management.  In other words, being a solid clinician requires understanding people as much as it does the science.

And to add in my legal advice, people rarely know if you’re good at what you do.  They do know whether or not you’re nice to them.  And many of these cases of being “not nice” often involve poor or failed communications with the patient and/or their family.  Learning how to talk to others, whether to get information or to persuade, was a significant part of my education as a legal professional.  It needs to be a significant part of our EMS education as well — and that means more than rapidly brushing through the mnemonics of “SAMPLE” and “OPQRST.”  It means active listening and then incorporating that information with your scientific knowledge to actually care for your patient.

That’s what being a professional is about. That’s what being a clinician is about.  It’s not about the flashing lights.  It’s not about the lab values.  It’s not about an obscure EKG finding.  It is about caring for others.  Period.

Why The Advice Is Rarely Free

Anyone who knows me (especially on Facebook) knows how much I rant about giving free legal advice.  To be more exact, I rant at the expectation that some in EMS have that they are entitled to ask me for free legal advice.  (But Wes, it’s just a quick question!)  That would be the same as asking an EMT who does transfers to give my dad a free ride to a doctor’s appointment, because, after all, it’s just a quick ride over to that clinic on the other side of town. As I’ve said more than once, I’m a volunteer paramedic, not a volunteer lawyer.

Kidding and ranting aside, I do get it, at least somewhat.  For a lot of us who are attorneys, we may be the only attorney that our friends know.  And I think that may be even more the case in EMS.

Law pays my bills and EMS keeps me sane. (Think on that one for a while.) Having said that, I need a law license to pay my bills and those things that could potentially jeopardize my license are things I typically try to avoid. Just like in EMS or any other licensed profession, as a lawyer, I’m subject to certain legal and ethical obligations. In my case, as a Texas attorney, my ground rules are largely set by what our State Bar refers to as the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.

Generally speaking, my obligations to you start once an attorney-client relationship is established. I would refer you to Part 10 of the Preamble of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct which states, in part, “Most of the duties flowing from the client-lawyer relationship attach only after the client has requested the lawyer to render legal services and the lawyer has agreed to do so.” In other words, if I’m providing you legal advice, the attorney-client relationship may well exist and I’m under all of those professional, ethical, and legal obligations.  Even if it’s “just a quick question,” please understand and respect me when I say that you need to seek legal counsel. After all, “legal services” constitutes what I do.  I’ve heard a few folks say, “Well, I’m just asking your opinion since you’re also a medic.”  If that’s the case, why was I picked out of every EMS provider you know to provide guidance on a legal question?

Please understand that another one of my obligations as an attorney is to only provide representation on matters that I’m competent in. Rule 1.01 states, again, in part, “A lawyer shall not accept or continue employment in a legal matter which the lawyer knows or should know is beyond the lawyer’s competence…”  I primarily do administrative law and government contracts.  I know about EMS law because it’s a field that’s near and dear to my heart personally.  That doesn’t mean that I know anything about your child custody, your speeding ticket, or your Aunt Erma’s will.  It’s the same as expecting your orthopedic surgeon to read an EKG.  Sure, they’re licensed and permitted to do such, but would you really trust their opinion?  More importantly, would you trust an orthopedic surgeon who’s actually willing to read and interpret an EKG?

As I’ve said more than once when discussing legal issues, both the underlying facts of the case as well as the laws of the jurisdiction make a huge difference in providing legal advice or in answering a question.  That’s why most of us who are lawyers have a favorite answer — it depends. Also, because lawyers need all of the facts and to find out the relevant law, it’s rarely just a short answer that we can give quickly. When you combine this with the duties that attach to an attorney-client relationship, you can hopefully understand why I’m loathe to wade into a social media debate about the law.  These debates often become a debate about what the law should be rather than what the law is.  If you want to change what the law is to your version of what the law should be, the political process exists for that very reason.

Also, just like I wouldn’t ask or expect my EMS friends and colleagues in Vegas to come to Texas and immediately start practicing as medics, please understand that my law license is issued by Texas.  I can provide legal advice in Texas — and no other state until or unless I apply to become licensed in another state.  As there’s no National Registry of Lawyers, the reciprocity process for attorneys (if it’s even granted in other states) tends to be a bit more complex and expensive. Otherwise, I end up taking another state’s bar exam to get admitted.  For reference, the Texas Bar Exam is offered twice a year and is a two and a half day exam.  That explains, at least in part, why the Registry exam didn’t seem like too much of a hurdle in comparison.

When I get tagged into or dragged into these debates online, it creates a dilemma for me and my fellow medic-lawyers. One colleague of mine recently noted to me that replying to “Facebook lawyers” puts us in an awkward position because even replying to or arguing with their positions, even when clearly and blatantly wrong, could be construed as providing legal advice. And when it’s about a specific instance, that’s even more likely to be considered providing legal advice — which is the practice of law.

Hopefully, these thoughts give you a better understanding of my mindset about not wanting to give legal advice, even if it’s “just a quick question;” why I like to say “it depends;” and why I recommend you get legal counsel of your own if you do have a question.  In Texas, our State Bar offers a lawyer referral service to find legal counsel.  For EMS issues affecting your liability or license, insurance coverage is available which may include legal representation.

I love our EMS community (ok,  most of the time) and I am always in favor of EMS providers being better educated on the laws and regulations that affect our practice.  However, please understand that while I am a lawyer, I am not your lawyer.  And for those of you who I’ve actually given “free” advice to, I hope you might understand and appreciate what exactly is involved when I do that. Being a lawyer is as much a part of my identity as being a medic — and both are a form of public trust that I sincerely value and hope to maintain.