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.

A Media Time-Out

I’ve gotten tired of the media.  I’ve gotten tired of the same stories appealing to the uneducated masses.  I’ve gotten tired of the same talking heads spreading the same talking points.  You thought I was talking about the upcoming national election in November?

Wrong.  I’ve gotten tired of the EMS media, both print and online. Virtually every EMS social media, online presence, and print publication consists of the same things. A few clinical “advances” highlighted, usually by a professional EMS Celebrity, the right EMS system, and/or the same cabal of professional committee members who’ve created the mess that is modern EMS — but wait, this time, they’re really going to fix it.  Then, there’s all the stuff to tell you what a hero you are.  Yes, you should wear your lack of education, your immaturity, and your inability to feed a family on an EMT paycheck as a badge of honor. And the majority of EMS “news” sites consist of results of content searches.  If a news article mentions “EMS” or other keywords, it gets shared on EMS news sites.  In my mind, this partially explains the Narcan for everyone craze — because, golly gee, they keep reporting on heroin and other scary drugs.

And EMS social media is more of the same.  Pandering to the least educated of the profession mixed in with some hero worship and mindless adulation because merely going to a job that involves less than 200 hours of initial education makes you a hero.  And by God, if you can’t pass an exam that measures minimal entry level competence to safely function, then don’t worry.  We’ll keep encouraging you and tell you to keep chasing those dreams, no matter how unrealistic they are, you special snowflake!

At times, you’ll see EMS media get it right.  The cover of the current edition EMS World is about prehospital ultrasound. Some of my friends in EMS who want to advance EMS as a profession and expand the role of EMS providers have tried, with occasional success, to raise the bar.  Yet, the reality is that there’s always more average and below average EMS providers to consume the media.  And in a capitalist society, we go where the money is.

I don’t know that we can fix the problem.  What I do know is that there is plenty of good educational material out there to be an informed, current provider.  You just have to look for it.  There’s even some good stuff online.  If you’re not familiar with FOAM, you should be.  There’s some incredible cutting edge medicine being spread on social media.  I like the quote that Dr. Joe Lex says:

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 that brings me to the final point that I have regarding becoming and remaining an informed practitioner of prehospital medicine.  If what we are doing is medicine — and I believe it is, then we need to be getting our education from physicians. I admit to being a nerd about medicine. I have several physician level texts that I use to expand, broaden, and challenge my notions about medicine.  And a personal goal is to attend more physician level professional education.

A rising tide may not always lift the rest of EMS, but I believe that if the smartest and most motivated of us in EMS demand more for our professional development, just maybe, we can start to be taken seriously as professionals.

Your Internship in EMS

Some of my best ideas for discussion fodder come from EMS social media.  Both the great insights and the “what was that guy thinking” moments get me to thinking about EMS and how we can “Make EMS Great Again.”

Today, several discussions led me to the topic of today’s blog entry for y’all.  A good friend of mine was bemoaning the lack of critical thinking in EMS providers of all levels, particularly after reading yet another “experienced” paramedic say the worn out, discredited, incorrect cliché of “BLS before ALS” yet again.  He suggested a need for an assessment and scenario based class on critical decision making, especially in relationship to airway management.  Another smart paramedic commented on a need for a course in scene management.  A few short moments later, I got an email advertising a textbook for a new NAEMT “card course” on “EMS Vehicle Operator Safety.”  And several days prior, people were bemoaning the current state of EMS continuing education where mandatory “card courses” like CPR and ACLS are virtually impossible to fail, yet also devoid of much educational value.  Then, there are all the new “tactical” classes for incidents unlikely to occur in your jurisdiction. Meanwhile EMS continuing education fails to keep providers current on the science and treatment of “bread and butter” EMS calls like respiratory distress, chest pain, abdominal pain, and routine trauma.  But there are certifications for critical care medicine, flight medicine, tactical medicine, and community paramedicine.  Before we reboot into EMS 3.0, let’s try to make sure that EMS 1.0 isn’t a completely flawed platform.

And then, all of these thoughts combined as I realized that they all, in part, address the same challenge. Namely, the idea of a “street ready” paramedic doesn’t exist. The National Registry exam, by its own admission, measures minimal entry level competence to safely practice.  Most organizations have some sort of field training process.  In these organizations, they usually run between one of two extremes. Some sort of quick orientation process that exists solely to say the new hire was “checked off” or some sort of extremely long process that is a virtual repeat of your EMS educational program’s clinicals where you are evaluated on clinical proficiency in each and every skill.  And in all too many programs, the FTO process becomes a legalized hazing process where you perform to your FTO’s prejudices, biases, and whims. Having been through a variety of field training programs, I can say that what doesn’t exist is an orientation to things you might experience daily — how to use the two way radio, how to troubleshoot various pieces of equipment, how to get supplies, etc. And depending on where you’re employed, you may go weeks — or years — without being exposed to certain types of calls and patients to put in your personal library of encounters that you can call upon for the next patient care challenge.

As a new lawyer, I experienced many of the same frustrations.  I came out of law school and the bar exam supposedly “ready to practice law.”  But my first few years as a lawyer, I was really learning how to practice law. And I began to recall something that was discussed in law school – namely, there is no internship or residency for lawyers like there are for physicians.

As a paramedic who didn’t have to rely on a paycheck as a paramedic, I got lucky.  I worked part-time for a while for a suburban service as I realized how little I actually knew.  I then got VERY lucky to find a volunteer position with the service that made me the paramedic that I am today — Harris County Emergency Services District 1 (now called Harris County Emergency Corps).  I walked into a perfect situation.  At the time, the District utilized their volunteers primarily as third crew members on a truck.  The paid staff usually appreciated an extra crew member to help.  And there were plenty of crew members who were willing to take the time to teach and pass on lessons.  It also didn’t hurt that the District was like the Bermuda Triangle of EMS.  Calls happened at HCESD-1 that simply didn’t happen anywhere else. High acuity calls in an economically depressed inner city combined with access to the best hospital systems in Texas made this an ideal learning environment for a motivated paramedic wanting to truly learn their craft.

In other words, I walked into, without realizing it at the time, a virtual internship and residency in urban EMS.  I remain convinced that my three years there made me a competent, motivated paramedic.  I actually even remain in contact with several of my former colleagues.

I realize that the funding issues and operational issues remain out there, but don’t we owe it to our patients, and even more to our professional identity, to create paid internships and residencies in EMS where a new paramedic has a safety net of experienced providers to work with in the right environment to truly become a master clinician?  Clearly, what we’re doing now is window dressing.

An internship program for EMS would create truly “street ready” paramedics.  Having an opportunity to truly learn medicine, both clinically and operationally, functioning as a third crew member with an experienced mentor (NOT a FTO “checking you off”) in a high volume system would be a perfect transition from student to employee.  If we can continue to tilt at windmills in EMS, like the quixotic quest to declare EMS an “essential government service,” why can’t we decide that we want providers who are truly ready to practice?

Let’s make the commitment for some high volume systems to serve as true training grounds for new paramedics to earn their spurs.  It’s time.

The Quest for Balance in EMS Social Media

For those of you who know me outside of this blog, you may know that I run several EMS groups on Facebook. Several are private groups for friends and colleagues, but one group has grown well beyond expectations.

Running an EMS page on social media is a constant challenge.  I like to compare it to Goldilocks and her porridge tasting. Some porridge is too hot. Some is too cold.  She had to try to find the right porridge.

EMS social media is the same way. There’s one extreme where we always have to be supportive. Everyone should follow their dream and passion to be in EMS, even if you’ve failed the National Registry exam three times.  These people recite the dogma quotes we all cringe at. “BLS before ALS.” “EMTs save paramedics.” “Race the reaper.” Their sources of information include “my instructor told me” and “our protocols said.” If you challenge these folks, you’re automatically unsupportive and get called a “paragod.”

There’s an opposite extreme as well.  These are the people who obsess and drone on about arcane clinical topics.  No minutiae of biochemistry or pharmacology is too obscure for these pedants to emphasize that you’re “dangerous” if you don’t understand.  These people, or their companions, like to post random EKGs with subtle findings that even cardiologists would debate.  They will post these EKGs without any patient presentation and expect any EMS provider to find the zebra or risk their scorn and ridicule.   It’s as if Sheldon and the rest of the cast of The Big Bang Theory started working on an ambulance and/or as EMS educators.

So, there’s a balance.  The truth is, it shouldn’t be that hard to pass an entry level EMS exam which measures minimal competency.  Mere certification determines entry level competency.  We must always strive to be better, each and every day. It’s my personal belief that EMTs should be reading paramedic level material for continuing education and/or possibly considering pursing AEMT/Intermediate or paramedic certification.  It’s my belief that paramedics should be reading physician-level educational material to supplement their knowledge. With the advent of open learning sources such as FOAMed and the like, the material is accessible.  However, it’s also important that we remember our fundamental role in the world of medicine. In most cases, we are the entry into the healthcare system.  If we can get the right patients to the right level of care the vast majority of the time, then EMS is a success.  Don’t worry about the Krebs cycle nearly as much as you worry about taking care of your patient.  I don’t expect the average EMS provider to provide physician level care or have a PhD’s understanding of the underlying science.  I expect competent, compassionate care where a clinician recognizes their limits, but challenges themselves to expand those limits daily.

Medicine is a parallel to engineering.  While both are based on the sciences, they are the application of pure science to solve human problems.  Never forget that what we do is about people.

Having said my peace for now, I make one promise to you.  I’ll try to be a better clinician, caregiver, and person today than I was yesterday.  I merely ask that if you share a passion for EMS that you make the same commitment.

Thinking About EMS Education

A friend, grizzled EMS veteran, and sage (all the same person) recently opined about the state of EMS and it got me to thinking. So, allow me to share my thoughts on initial EMS education and perhaps offend everyone in EMS and EMS education all at once.

I’m not sure that accreditation or degree requirements improve EMS one iota. What they do is create artificial barriers to non-college-based programs. There are plenty of good programs that aren’t affiliated with a college. And there are colleges that turn out crap EMS providers. Speaking purely anecdotally, the colleges know this.  The local college in my area offers the paramedic program only as a full-time, daytime only program.  There’s no alternative.  Some of the required courses make sense. (Anatomy and physiology come to mind.)  But especially for someone who’s already got a degree, it makes little sense to require general education classes all over again — much less a physical education class.

As for EMTs. The EMT basic curriculum is way too short and way too superficial. In most places, it’s little more than teaching first aid and some basic medical knowledge. It creates people who think they’re heroes with less than 200 hours of training. We end up with people who practice medicine based on dogma and “my instructor said” and who truly believe that BLS saves ALS and they’re heroes. Meanwhile, we have more than a few places where EMTs can’t administer over the counter medicines that the lay public can and are legally prohibited from using the same glucometer that a child is taught to use.

And let’s talk about one other thing. The various ALS skill monkey levels that exist between EMT-Basic and Paramedic. These people get some or ALL of the ALS skills that a paramedic gets with none of the understanding. It’s a recipe for malpractice and for killing patients. Don’t give me the BS that it’s “for the volunteers.” There are plenty of us who volunteer who took the time and effort to educate ourselves. I’ve never worked full-time paid as either an EMT or a Paramedic and I’ve reached a decent place in the EMS world. Whether paid or volunteer, certification standards remain the same.  And allowing someone without a foundation in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and patient assessment to perform high risk skills like rapid sequence intubation, even with calling a physician for a radio/phone order, is a recipe for a disaster.

My solution to all of this? Enhance the educational standards for EMT-B to be more like the current AEMT. The current EMT standards should be the standard for the first responder, not one who staffs an ambulance. And I’m not sure that paramedic should be an associate’s degree. What about entering paramedic education after already having a bachelor’s degree? It’s a lot easier to teach prehospital emergency care to someone who already has critical thinking and communications skills than it is to teach critical thinking and communications skills who’s got a paramedic certification and only a vocational/technical education.

These are just my thoughts. I don’t pretend that these changes will improve EMS overnight, lower the cost of healthcare, or raise EMS wages.  What I do believe is that these are the right changes for better patient care.  And patient advocacy demands just that.

Have you ever noticed….?

Have you ever noticed how many new, inexperienced, poorly educated providers talk about how much they’re allowed to “do” in their EMS organization/system/region?

Today, I was involved in a discussion in EMS social media where an EMT with three months of experience was bragging about taking a sixteen hour course where he would get “training” on administering three additional medications and be allowed to use a supraglottic airway. In the grand scheme of things, all of these medications and the supraglottic airway are relatively benign interventions.  There’s relatively low risk for each of the medications and the airway device in question. What is NOT benign is the prevailing mentality in EMS that a card class or an in-service is all that’s needed, especially to teach an entry-level EMS provider skills that are normally reserved for providers with a higher certification. Even with its numerous faults, paramedic education has a depth of education in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and patient assessment that an EMT or AEMT course don’t have. While a sixteen hour course might be able to teach the ins and outs of those particular medications and that particular airway device, that course is zero substitute for actually having the education that an advanced provider has.  We can teach almost anyone how to do something.  Knowing when to do something — or when not to do something — is where education is superior to training.

Sadly, our profession has done little to disabuse EMS providers, especially inexperienced entry level providers, of the notion that EMS consists only of a set of skills that can be added and subtracted at whim.  Rather, like any academic discipline, particularly one involving the healing arts, EMS consists of knowledge.  And there is no statutory limit on the knowledge that any provider can have, regardless of their certification level. Professional education does not end with initial certification.  Rather, initial certification is but a determination of entry level minimal competence.  Professionalism involves the relentless pursuit of mastery well above and beyond the minimum standards.

As I’ve joked before, a cook knows and follows the recipes.  A chef understands the culinary arts well enough to be able to create their own recipes.  The majority of EMS providers are technicians — and as such, we’ve become the short order cooks of medicine.

EMS will become a respected part of the medical system when we stop talking about what we can do and start talking about what we know.  There’s a big difference between training and education.  When we routinely produce educated clinicians as opposed to trained technicians, that’s when the respect — and the money — will show up.

What Might Be Wrong With EMS and EMS Education

Earlier this week, I was speaking with someone in the EMS regulatory world and they mentioned having to possibly roll out a class on a new infectious disease concern.  I began to wonder if part of the problem is that many EMS providers are technicians who are taught to “fix” a patient’s “condition.” Every so often, the latest buzz hits EMS and we all roll out something “new” to address this.

Some years, the EMS flavor du jour is anaphylaxis.  Some years, it’s been cardiac arrest.  Some years, it’s been acute coronary syndrome.  Yet other years, stroke becomes a focus. Currently, we seem to be torn between sepsis and emerging tropical infectious diseases (Ebola and now Zika).  All of these are important topics and something that any EMS provider should be capable of at least beginning to address. Meanwhile, we have all of the various factions advocating that EMS will get the respect it deserves if we go into “community paramedicine,” “tactical medicine,” or “critical care paramedicine.”  Then factor in the various advocates pushing differing models of EMS, whether private, third-service, or fire-based.

Yet, what everyone is overlooking is simple. We’re teaching EMS providers the recipes for cooking, but not how to actually cook.  Every one of these new ideas that rolls out fails to address the simple fact that EMS providers aren’t taught the fundamentals of medicine.   Teach anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, pharmacology, assessment, and skills appropriate to the provider level.  If you taught the core fundamentals of medicine rather than flowcharts and protocols, you’d have an educated provider who, at any level, is capable of adapting and providing clinically appropriate to almost any patient.

If you teach a chef, you teach them their way around the kitchen.  If you train a cook, you teach them how to make things from the recipe.  In EMS, we’re turning out short order cooks who need a new recipe anytime the clinical tastes change as opposed to professional chefs who know how to make a recipe of their own and can vary that recipe for their patient/customer. And until we fix that, all of the latest card courses and “urgent” continuing education modules to address the latest problem won’t fix the real problem with EMS.


It Depends

Anyone who knows me in real life or has heard me talk about the law has heard me say that the lawyer’s favorite answer to any question is always, “It depends.”

In the law, we have a lot of sayings.  “Bad facts make for bad law.”  And another favorite question of mine is “What does the contract say?”  These sayings, among many other legal maxims, recognize that answers to most legal questions are nuanced and there are many variable factors in answering the question, including the facts underlying the matter and the law of the jurisdiction.

Yet when I switch roles from lawyer to paramedic, I never cease to be amazed by the number of EMS providers who want hard and fast answers to complex medical questions.  They want an “If A, then B” approach where their ability to make decisions is binary (yes/no), as opposed to providing for nuance and judgment.  The answer in almost every scenario facing a medical provider is incredibly dependent on many subjects, including provider skill, patient presentation, access to definitive (and appropriate) care, and availability of resources. In other words, what works in rural Nevada doesn’t necessarily apply in downtown Boston.  And one rightfully expects different measures to be taken based on patient presentation.  It’s really short-sighted and dare I say, ludicrous, to expect complex questions to be answered with simple linear yes/no answers.

Part of being a professional, in any field, including EMS, is that we embrace nuance and subtlety in our practice.  By embracing the fact that uncertainty and nuance enhance what we do, we become professionals.  By demanding a liner flowchart, we remain technicians.  And ultimately, it remains my core belief that EMS providers are, even in a limited way, engaged in the practice of medicine. Practice your profession.

Test Prep or Understanding?

Confession time here.  Last week, I took the CCP-C exam and it kicked me in several places.  In all honesty, I was pretty arrogant to think that I might know enough critical care paramedicine to pass the exam without having had the benefit of a critical care course.  Having said that, I did come closer to passing than I probably should have.

Upon reflection though, I realized the real mistake I made.  I listened to some of my friends who said that going over the various test prep books and programs would be sufficient to get a “smart guy like you” through the exam.  I spent a fair amount of time in these books and the websites and still came away a bit short.  What I didn’t spend the time doing was actually learning the material and gaining mastery of it.  Instead of practice questions about vent settings, lab values, and hemodynamic monitoring, I should’ve been learning those concepts frontward and backward.  It wasn’t the cheapest exam by any stretch.  But I think I got a very inexpensive lesson in doing the right things for my professional development and for my patients.

The practice of medicine is not merely passing a test.  The tests occur every day with each of our patients.  We owe it to them and ourselves to master our knowledge base and keep expanding our knowledge base.  Reality isn’t a multiple choice exam.  Our real test occurs when the pager goes off and we get sent into the unknown.  Whether it’s the medical first responder exam or board certification in a physician subspecialty, an exam measures entry level competency.  Let’s stop preparing to be merely entry level competent.  Let’s start preparing to be the masters of our profession.

EMS will be a better place and we’ll have better providers when we stop hearing about the exam and the “tricks” to pass it.  Instead, we should start worrying much more about comprehending the underlying material that’s on the exam. Of course, mastery of the material is much more complex than merely regurgitating crammed material for a multiple choice exam….

As for me, I’m going to retake the exam eventually, but not until I’ve read and understood critical care medicine from a physician level text on ICU medicine. Why?  Because I don’t get multiple choice options in real life and I’ve yet to be able to choose which patients I get.