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.

What’s Wrong

This morning, I received a long email from a long-time mentor of mine who’s also a paramedic and attorney.  He was pretty upset about the lack of involvement from physicians in improving the state of EMS.  As I replied, I realized that I needed to adapt my reply to share with my three or four devoted followers.

I blame the docs too, but only tangentially.  They write protocols for the lowest common denominator.  They are risk averse and rightfully so.  There’s a lot of good paramedics out there, but there’s even more who shouldn’t even be trusted with a BVM (which I still think is the most dangerous and under-respected tool on the ambulance).  It goes back some to education.  We have way too many people teaching EMS education whose only expertise is that they hold an EMS certification. Law school and medical school aren’t taught the entire way through by the same someone with a JD or MD.  There are multiple classes, each taught by subject matter experts.  One of the things I hear from some of the EMS dinosaur types is how some of their classes were taught by physicians (including specialists) and nurses.  We don’t have that anymore and I think the education has suffered as a result.  CoAEMSP doesn’t care. They care that you’re using FISDAP or “Platinum Planner” to track your students and develop more metrics. They don’t care about the quality of the content.  NAEMSE doesn’t care.  They are too busy promoting “flipped classrooms,” “learning styles,” or whatever other trendy topics are out there.  The NAEMT doesn’t care.  They’re too busy promoting new card courses to cover things that should’ve been covered in initial education.  The American Heart Association doesn’t care.  They’re too busy promoting ACLS, BLS, and PALS to care.  And the NREMT?  They should care, but they don’t.  They will get the usual professional EMS committee members in a room and issue high and mighty statements about the EMS Agenda Version Whatever.  And the item writing committees for the exams will give a de facto veto to the state with the worst EMS standards because the exam “has to reflect the entire country.”  And the publishers of EMS texts don’t care.  They know their market.  Truth be told, there’s more people reading at a tenth grade reading level who are getting their paramedic because their fire department requires it than there are students (or teachers) who really want to understand the whys of prehospital medicine.  And the students and educators that do want to know how to practice prehospital medicine are supplementing their texts with medical and nursing texts as well as online material. The state health bureaucracies don’t care.  EMS is a small part of their mission.  They see their mission as public health and welfare — and to the average bureaucrat with a RN and a MPH degree, EMS is best seen and not heard — and then, only seen during EMS Week.  The Feds?  Well, truth be told, EMS really isn’t a Federal responsibility and making it such will ensure that the same people who brought us the VA will be in charge of prehospital medicine as well.
And don’t even get me started about the usual gang of idiots.  In short, every EMS committee is tasked to solve the ongoing problems of EMS but is full of the same EMS celebrities who created the problem in the first place.
EMS as a whole is beyond repair.  But virtually no single EMS system (except maybe perhaps some of the large urban systems) is beyond salvage.  Fix each system and fix the individual EMS education programs and eventually, the rising tide will lift all boats.
Until then, rant globally, fix locally.

Bread And Butter

Today’s blog post (and sorry for the delay to my Mom and the two others who read the blog) was going to be about continuing education.  I was going to write about the seeming inability to get the majority of EMS providers to engage in continuing education above and beyond the usual “required” card courses and/or the state-mandated refresher course material.  (Parenthetical.  I’m very glad to practice prehospital medicine in the Lone Star State where the state mandates very little as far as specific content and leaves it up to the provider as to what continuing education to seek out, subject to a few broad categories.)

I was going to complain about people not attending high quality continuing education, even when it’s offered for free.  I was going to mention the challenge of bringing the knowledge from international and national conferences like SMACC and EMSWorldExpo back to one’s home EMS system.  I was going to mention what I call the “Goldilocks” challenge of EMS continuing education — ensuring that the material isn’t so introductory to be a rehash of EMT classes but isn’t so complex as to require a PhD in pharmacology and physiology to understand the material, let alone apply it. I could even mention the whole volunteer versus paid debate, not even mentioning how so many volunteers manage to attend outside continuing education and conferences on their own dime, but you’ll rarely see a large EMS system (let alone a fire-based EMS system) sending people to a conference, let alone their members attending on their own. (See also: If I need to know it, they’ll do it in-house and pay me overtime for it.)

These are all worth mentioning.  And they deserve mentioning.  But here’s what really struck me. We can have all of the high-speed providers going to courses like these.  And there’s also going to be a lot of people going to “cool” sounding continuing education courses in tactical medicine, hazmat, or some sort of technical rescue. (Please, please tell me why an EMT working interfacility transfers needs to know how to be an “operator” in the hot zone.) But we rarely have good, consistent, clinically current, relevant continuing education on the topics that are the bread and butter of prehospital medicine. Think about your last shift on the ambulance.  Chest pain, respiratory difficulty, sepsis, ground level falls, abdominal pain, routine MVCs.  How much continuing education have you received on these matters? If you did receive continuing education on these topics, was it merely a repeat of what you’ve been told every recertification cycle you’ve been in EMS? From the amount of providers who think that any heart rate above 120 must be some form of arrhythmia that requires treatment and who think that EMS administration of diuretics for CHF patients is a good idea, clearly, we’re not getting the bread and butter of EMS down, much less mastering it.

What we see with continuing education is but a symptom of what’s wrong with EMS.  We want to do all the new cool things of the moment, whether it’s community paramedicine, technical rescue, tactical medicine, or critical care medicine.  We don’t want to do the bread and butter of medicine (see also: every EMS social media forum complaining about system abuse, drug abusers, or “frequent flyers”) and when we do the bread and butter, we aren’t always current.  If we can’t get the routine right, why should we be trusted with thinking outside the box?

The Access To Knowledge

One of the greatest things about the Internet is that it has democratized access to information.  Most academic journals are available online, some of which are even available for free.  Wikipedia has improved, in most cases, to provide reliable information on most subjects.  There are plenty of other sites that provide scholarly level information out there.  Then there are sites like Khan Academy that make basic education in a variety of subjects available for free.  And if you can’t find the information online, you can order virtually any book online through retailers like Amazon.

In other words, you can have access to the same educational materials that train professionals in any field.  Want to learn gastroenterology?  The books used to train residents and fellows can be ordered online.  Want to learn engineering?  The materials are available online too.  Want to be an administrative lawyer?  Yep, law can be found online too.  You can find most legal codes online and with a bit of searching, you can even find the relevant cases too.

Here’s what none of these books will teach you.  They won’t teach you the mindset of how to think like a member of a profession.  The materials alone don’t teach the academic or professional discipline. Reading statutes, regulations, and cases may provide some insight on the law, but you won’t necessarily grasp the legal principles or reasoning, much less how a single law in and of itself interacts with all of the other laws out there.  Likewise, one can buy all of the cardiology texts out there and become quite knowledgeable about the heart while at the same time failing to realize that the heart is but one interdependent organ in an entire human body.

The democratization of information has done wonders for our society.  Yet, one of the biggest challenges is that mere access to information doesn’t necessarily mean understanding the information.  Nor does it mean placing said information into its proper context.  If you don’t believe me, look at the number of self-appointed experts who have “done their research” posting online. Cherry-picking from a discredited study doesn’t make you an expert on autism and vaccines. An undergraduate degree combined with a medical degree is where you learn to skeptically examine scientific claims, understand how the human body works, and put that knowledge together to treat patients. Likewise, merely cutting and pasting a statute that you found via Google doesn’t make you the next Clarence Darrow.  As much of a cliche as it is, “learning to think like a lawyer” is exactly what law school does — teaching legal research, teaching legal writing, and ultimately, teaching enough legal reasoning so that you realize that a case is rarely won by merely cutting and pasting a statute in and of itself.

Information is great.  Education is more than information.  Education is the process of learning how to process, synthesize, contextualize, and use the information outside of a vacuum. And that’s why there’s such a market for the coffee mugs that say “Don’t confuse your Google search with my professional license.”  Whether it’s an EMS certification, a professional engineer’s license, or a subspecialty in medicine, thinking that reading the books and journals on your own makes you the equivalent of a licensed professional is hubris to the point of danger.

How does this apply to my usual writing about my self-described expensive hobby of EMS?  Quite simply, our field has a fair amount of self-appointed experts in anything vaguely and tangentially connected to EMS.  While there are many in our field who worship at the altars of dogma, vaguely defined “experience,” and the even worse defined “how we do it in the field,” probably the most dangerous are so-called leaders in our field who routinely opine on subjects in which they have knowledge, but not the education to contextualize, synthesize, or harmonize the knowledge outside of what they just read and parroted.  If you don’t believe me, look at how many places immediately remove (or add) an intervention or medication based solely on one article that’s been making the rounds of the EMS community.

In conclusion, the summation of human wisdom in any field is rarely going to be found in a Facebook post or a blog post.  As the Romans would say, “caveat emptor.”  As Reagan would’ve said, “Trust, but verify.”

Another Part of Being a Professional

Social media is the gift that keeps on giving for an EMS blogger.  It enables me to amplify my voice.  But today, it keeps pointing out something so obvious about why EMS still isn’t taken as a profession.

Plain and simple, part of being a professional, whether it’s nuclear engineering or being an EMT, means being responsible for your own learning. There are conferences, internet resources, journals (real journals, not trade publications), and even books that exist to expand your knowledge of all things about the delivery of prehospital medicine. Yet, there’s all too many in EMS who view social media as the equivalent of “phoning a friend” or “asking the audience” in a virtual EMS game show.  (Or maybe it’s the EMS Gong Show?)

While perusing EMS social media today, I’ve seen basic questions about how to recertify, how the National Registry exam works, and basic cardiac arrest management.  I’m far from the sharpest spoon in the drawer of EMS silverware, but I found the answers (and from reputable sources, no less) to these questions with a quick Google search. This leads me to one of several conclusions.  One, there’s a significant portion of people in EMS who are incapable of performing even basic research. Two, there are people who expect the answers spoon-fed to them.  Or three, they want someone to hold their hand and merely validate the belief they already hold.  None of these alternatives are promising for our profession’s long term viability.

As the bachelor’s degree has become the de facto standard for nursing, we continue to turn out a significant portion of so-called heroes who have no use for so-called “book learning” and believe that real learning only occurs on the “streets.”  And we wonder why the Los Angeles Fire Department is using nurse practitioners for community paramedicine?

Yelping The Eagles

Anyone who knows me knows that as much as I love EMS and law, I also enjoy good food and have a tendency to write reviews of good (and occasionally bad) food on Yelp.  This weekend, I’ve attended the Gathering of Eagles conference in Dallas.  Seeing as Yelp probably isn’t the forum to review the Eagles, I’ll blog my review instead.

Sum total 4/5 stars.

This was my first time attending the Gathering of Eagles conference, but it will definitely not be my last.  This is unlike virtually any other EMS conference.  First, the presentations are exceptionally short.  For many of us, it’s perfect for short EMS attention spans.  For others, the presentations are just enough to whet your appetite to dig deeper into the subject.  For some of those subjects, I’m probably in the latter.  Other subjects were brief enough so as to not lose my interest.

I also appreciated the value for the money.  For the cost of admission, you get two days of continuing education as well as continental breakfast, cold drinks during the day, and lunch both days.  I can’t think of any other conference that delivers that kind of value.

The other huge positive to Eagles is the accessibility.  Each of the physicians readily made themselves available to the audience for questions immediately after their presentation and around the conference.  In fact, at the lunches, the conference organizers made an effort to have an “Eagle” physician at each table.  The opportunity to talk informally — and learn — from some very respected physicians rarely presents itself this easily.

The final advantage to this conference is that the audience largely selects itself.  This isn’t a conference designed for the average provider.  It’s heavily science and research driven.  There’s quite the smattering of medical students, residents, EMS fellows, and physicians in the audience as well as senior EMS management.  There’s not a finer networking opportunity anywhere.

There are two caveats to this conference, although they’re nowhere enough to discourage attending.  First, with the heavy focus on research, there’s a strong emphasis on cardiac arrest and resuscitation.  In other words, dead versus not dead is easy to measure.  Second, the Eagles represent very large EMS systems.  These systems, by their very nature, are large urban systems.  Their models of care don’t necessarily easily translate to smaller systems where changes can be rolled out more quickly to a smaller number of providers.   In other words, not all that is presented here will be new to providers in more progressive or aggressive EMS systems. (Perhaps there’s a need for a separate conference with the physician medical directors of suburban and rural EMS systems.)

Having said all of this, I will definitely be back next year.

McDonald’s Applied To EMS

Nope, this post has zilch to do with EMS wages, so put those pitchforks away. Rather, I’ll ask a semi-rhetorical question.  Why do people stop at McDonald’s when they’re travelling?  It’s simple.  People know what they’re going to get and they like consistency. A McDonald’s in Boise isn’t going to differ all that much from a McDonald’s in Miami. By doing such, tourists may miss out on an incredible local diner. Just as likely, though, they could miss out on food poisoning by visiting a so-called local institution.

As of late, it seems that EMS is taking the McDonald’s approach to medicine where consistency is valued above all else. Again, as is the case with dining options, an obsession with consistency drives away exceptionally low standards and performance.  But it also seems to drive away high performance as well. And unlike a Big Mac, prehospital medicine in rural Nevada with long response times and limited access to hospitals is going to need to differ from a compact, urban center like Boston with multiple academic medical centers.

A good friend of mine has asserted that there’s a growing advocacy movement for mediocrity in EMS.  I’m not sure I’m ready to go that far.  But I do believe that the movement in EMS that pushes buzzwords is hurting EMS.

The buzzword movement pushes catchphrases such as metrics, data, standards, accreditation, “best practices,” and regularly misuses “evidence based medicine” in an effort to ensure a level of uniformity, consistency, and mediocrity in prehospital medicine.

The buzzword movement obsesses maniacally over cardiac arrest survival rates because dead/not dead is an easy metric.  Nevermind that cardiac arrest represents a very small part of what EMS does and that most out of hospital cardiac arrests are not salvageable, it’s an easy metric, so it becomes what determines “success” in EMS. Symptom relief and routing the right patients to the right care are nowhere near as easy to quantify, so these things (which EMS should be getting right) get overlooked regularly.

I’d much prefer that EMS systems focus less on consistency and compliance and more on excellence. From my experience in prehospital medicine, I’ve found that if you encourage medics (of all levels) to achieve a high level, most medics will do their best to reach it.  As the old axiom goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Instead of striving for consistency, I think it’s time for EMS to strive for excellence.  Even if we occasionally miss said mark, we’re going to improve rather than stagnate. Our patients deserve a commitment to excellence, not a commitment to consistency — which all too often has become shorthand for mediocrity.

Gresham’s Law and EMS Social Media

In economics, there’s a concept called Gresham’s Law.  Gresham’s Law states that bad money drives out good.

Sadly, the same is often true in EMS social media.  Bad discussion, particularly in some forums, drives away good discussion.  Most EMS pages on Facebook in particular are dominated by the loudest voices in the forum – most often poorly educated providers who repeat dogma, dated information, and flat out incorrect information. Combine that with some who want everyone to be “supportive” and not discourage people and you have a forum where bad information drives out good information.  Many of my intelligent colleagues in EMS and medicine have tired of trying to educate the unwilling.

And then, there’s another factor at play as well.  People in many of these forums want to discuss unlikely or arcane scenarios to the detriment of mastering the basics of good medical care.  Random medical-legal scenarios involving revocation of care, bizarre EKG cases, and random trauma pictures flood EMS social media.  Yet, there’s still a significant chunk of EMS providers who think that you can reverse a cardiac arrest with dextrose or naloxone (Hint: You can’t.) or that a long spine board is mandatory for every patient (Hint: The National Association of EMS Physicians and all of the current science says no.) And let’s not even talk about the number of providers at all levels who think that all respiratory difficulty gets treated with a nebulizer full of albuterol.

Bad information from bad participants drives out good information from the people who might know something. There are too many EMS social media participants who are constantly analyzing zebras when they can’t recognize the herd of horses coming towards them.

I don’t have a solution.  As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.  While I try to educate when and where I can, I find I’d rather work with those who want to learn and want to improve themselves and their practice of medicine.  When you find those people, it makes it all worthwhile.  Until then, don’t forget the over the counter pain medicine of your choice from banging your head against your desk.

We Aren’t Nurses. And Nurses Aren’t EMS Providers.

For the record, I’m sick and tired of the nurse bashing. Not here, but on EMS groups in general. While there’s some overlap between EMS and nursing, the two are entirely different fields and both have a special place. Sometimes, though, EMS proves its special place involves a crash helmet and a short bus.
EMS has very specific education (some might call it training) in a very specific field.  We are the experts in providing autonomous, independent immediate care, usually in non-clinical settings.  We excel at providing immediate care to acute patients in the first hour or so of care.  Honestly, in these settings, EMS does represent definitive care.  What makes EMS unique is our ability to deliver this care outside of a hospital/office setting.  I like to describe us as medical providers using a public safety background to deliver patient care. Talk to more than one experienced nurse or physician about EMS during a cardiac arrest and you’ll hear them acknowledge our very specific expertise in providing care during those first crucial moments of an acute medical crisis.  Outside of the immediate care setting, we start to flounder.  It’s not our fault.  It’s just that’s not what we’re educated to do.
Nurses.  Nurses are different.  Their education is much broader and focused on a wide spectrum of settings.  That makes nurses excellent generalists with opportunities for specialization. While it’s true that most nurses (and possibly even some ER nurses) border on helpless in an emergency setting, I can equally guarantee that most EMS providers would flounder at best in a setting where you’re caring for a patient for more than an hour, day after day, and probably more than one or two patients at a time (except in the most acute care settings in a hospital). And unlike EMS, nursing licensure is easily transferrable between states and there’s a ton of career opportunities in the practice of nursing, nursing administration/management, and nursing education.  Not to mention graduate degrees that provide real value in terms of careers.
EMS providers have knowledge of medicine that’s a mile deep in one field (emergency medicine).  Nurses have a knowledge of medicine that’s a mile wide.  Yes, there’s some overlap between nursing and EMS, as there is with any of the medical professions.  Just because I have skills with an endotracheal tube and a bag-valve mask doesn’t mean that I’m the same as a respiratory therapist. Nursing and EMS are complementary fields.  Neither is a springboard to the other.  Having said that, some of the best clinicians I’ve seen are those who are both RNs and paramedics.  They truly bring the best of both worlds to their patients.  And yes, EMS providers’ skill sets and knowledge belong in settings other than ambulances.  Paramedics would be great additions to the hospital and clinical settings as more facilities recognize the value of paramedic assessment and intervention in the rapidly deteriorating patient.
Let’s quit trying to compare ourselves to nurses.  Let’s quit trying to define ourselves by what we can do.  Instead of bashing nurses, maybe we need to ask why what EMS has been doing hasn’t worked for increasing our pay and respect. The short answer?  The public doesn’t know who we are or what we do.  Combine that with low entry standards and equally low educational standards and we’ve become the Rodney Dangerfield’s of medicine — No respect, I tell ya.

To The EMS Students And New Providers

Let’s be honest.  EMS culture at some times can be toxic. We have a ton of stations where gossip, a “good old boys” club, a “mean girls” club, or hazing occupy the down time and set a horrendous tone.  In too many EMS organizations, the precepting and field training processes become a bad parody of some sort of boot camp environment where breaking down a new student or provider, hazing, belittling then, or teaching them merely to practice medicine exactly as their training officer is the sad norm of things.  I get it.  We’ve got a culture problem in EMS and we can all improve.

Many of our new students and providers are coming out of college-based programs.  (One result of the accreditation process, whether intentional or unintentional, beneficial or harmful, is that college-based programs are more likely to have the infrastructure and resources to navigate and succeed in the accreditation progress.)  There’s been a lot of discussion about the current “snowflake” or “cupcake” culture and how many students want validation.  While my experience is merely anecdotal, one of the words that I see students and new providers abuse is the word “supportive.”

I routinely see/hear/observe people using the word supportive to mean that they only seek validation.  They use the word to stifle any criticism and to discourage dissent.  The reality is that, maudlin posts and attention seeking memes aside, the practice of medicine (and that does include EMS) is serious business.  We’ve been given a position of trust, responsibility, and even some authority. That means there are right and wrong answers in what we do. There are very real consequences to much of what we do.

In short, it’s each of our responsibilities to be supportive.  But it’s also our obligation to ensure that supportive doesn’t become a way to validate and enable poor providers. Supportive should never mean a lack of accountability. Each of us do have a responsibility to “enable” our students and new colleagues — and that should be to enable to become the best clinician possible.  Nothing else is acceptable.