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.

Medicine and Politics

I get it.  Social media, outside of a few select areas, takes a fairly liberal bias.  And there’s more than a few folks who believe that being liberal is consistent with being educated.  I get that.  As a lawyer, I’m one hundred percent committed to upholding your constitutional rights to free speech, assembly, and petitioning the government.  That’s guaranteed by our Constitution, which is a pretty unique document and guarantee of your rights and liberties as an American citizen.

Here’s where I dissent.  There’s a lot of hashtag activism going on in the medical world on social media.  There’s a ton of people who’ve taken some very strong positions because they disagree with the current President of the United States.  That is well and good.  Again, it is your constitutional right.  I have two objections to this mindset.  First, there’s a bit of a violation of trust with the consumers of these clinicians’ social media feeds.  When your social media presence is that of a “Free and Open Access to Medicine” (aka FOAM) advocate, I rarely expect to see politics.  I expect to see medicine.  As both an attorney and a medical professional, I get that one may hold strong views and perhaps even consider them as part of your professional identity. I don’t expect to see a veiled insinuation (or in some cases, outright statement) that opposing the position of the United States government is part of one’s ethical obligation as a clinician. Further, I don’t expect to see the continued belief that being “educated” means you take a certain political worldview.  Perhaps we should recall and recollect about the collective clucking of tongues at physicians and pharmacists who refused to be involve with the “morning after” pill.

By all means, if you’re asked to do something unethical, stand up.  Stand up for your beliefs as well.  But using your megaphone to shout your beliefs in the ears of those who you’ve brought to your social media home to hear about medicine is, in this guy’s opinion, a violation of that trust. And that goes doubly so when the dissent doesn’t even involve the practice of medicine.

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.

Be scared. Be very scared.

I saw a post in an EMS forum from a newly minted EMT expressing fear and trepidation about their knowledge base and their readiness to perform in the field. After some reflection and even a dose of cynicism and sarcasm, I hereby put these thoughts out there for the entry level EMT.

EMT is among the easiest certifications to get with the lowest barrier to entry and relatively low standards. Less than 200 hours of training should scare you. It’s but an entry level certification and a remarkably simple achievement. Holding yourself out as any sort of medical professional or hero with this little training should scare the heck out of you, your colleagues, and your patients.  And contrary to the t-shirts, very few paramedics are “saved” by EMTs.

But in all fairness, I don’t blame you.  I blame the EMS profession and some EMS educators and recruiters who’ve promised you that your entry level education will save lives and make you a hero.  If you haven’t already figured it out, much of what you were trained for rarely happens.  Some of those neat bandaging and splinting tricks (many of which are straight out of the old Boy Scout and Red Cross first aid texts) will never enter into your career.   The things you glossed over, namely medical emergencies and patient assessment, are the bread and butter of EMS.  You’re in a service career that deals with people.  And the general public doesn’t follow the same definition of emergency that you got in your class.  Remember, these are the folks that called their doctor after hours and got a recording saying, “If you’re having a medical emergency, hang up and dial 911.”  Thus, enter EMS — and the call nature that you don’t consider an emergency. In short, the reality is that you’re much more likely to use your ability to talk to a patient than you ever will an occlusive dressing or a traction splint.

So, what to do?  Well, first of all, as they say in the movie Jarhead, “Embrace the suck.”  In other words, embrace the fact that your new field involves much less heroism and much more service and caregiving.  You’ll be less disappointed and less burnt out along the way.  Second, recognize that a certification of minimal entry level competence is the entry to the field, not the pinnacle of achievement.  In other words, the real learning starts now.  Whether it’s podcasts, social media, journals (NOT trade magazines), or conferences, you need access to real medical education.  Finally, have a life outside of EMS.  Have hobbies, have a family.  Don’t wrap yourself solely in the identity of being an EMT (or a paramedic. Or even an attorney.)  And with that advice, you’re closer to ready to embark on your path in EMS, regardless of your certification.

Saving lives? Occasionally.  Providing service?  Every day.

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.

Yes, We Are A Service

We keep seeing the pleas and exhortations to “pay EMS workers what they deserve.”  I get it.  We’re underpaid.  Or so we keep hearing.

Whether we are employed by a public or private entity, we’re still a business.  We get paid for our services, whether through tax money, patients’ payments, or reimbursement through private or public insurance. That means that we’re selling what we do — and if we don’t have customers, we don’t have ambulances — or paychecks.

The number one goal of any business is to have (and keep) customers.  (Of course, there is an exception to every rule and in the USA, the businesses that don’t understand customer retention are cable companies and cell phone providers!)  And the truth be told, we in EMS do a terrible job of gaining and keeping customers.

Let’s talk about gaining customers.  The fire service and law enforcement get it.  They routinely engage in public relations, outreach, and public education. These organizations go out of their way to make themselves visible and engage the community in almost way they can.  If a citizen shows up at a fire station, you can almost guarantee they’ll be offered a tour, a cup of coffee, and a warm greeting.  Show up at an EMS station and what happens?  Probably a grunt, at best.  Fire Prevention Week?  The firefighters are making the rounds.  National Night Out?  The cops will be there.  And probably the firefighters too.  Social media?  Most PDs and FDs have Facebook pages where they share and brand their message?  EMS?  Not so much. We have EMS Week?  What do we do?  Well, for one thing, we complain about whatever “freebies” the hospitals give us.  Maybe we’ll put a crew somewhere and give the same blood pressure checks you can get any day in the waiting areas for most pharmacies.  Ride-alongs?  Sure, some organizations allow them.  Many don’t, claiming HIPAA, liability, or some other red herring. Showing off the ambulance?  Explaining EMS training?  Nope, most places don’t do that either.  Wonder why people confuse EMTs and paramedics or just call us ambulance drivers? Wonder why people call us for non-acute reasons and then drive themselves to the ER when it’s a “real” emergency?  The reason is simple ignorance.  Ignorance can be cured.  But we’re too content to complain as opposed to educate. Most PDs and many FDs have a “citizens’ academy” program where they provide the public an insight into their world.  With the exception of MedStar in Fort Worth, I’ve yet to see an EMS program do this.  But again, we complain at the lack of respect given to us.

The lack of respect given to us.  Yep, we complain about that all the time.  But do we show any respect to our customers?  Yep.  Customers.  And if we have customers, we have to have customer service.  I could spend hours on customer service.  But I won’t, because I can distill it into two key takeaways.  First, be nice.  Second is “why be nice?”  The simple reason is that nice providers are less likely to be complained on and even sued.  The reality is that the overwhelming majority of our patients don’t know anything about the quality of our care.  What they do know about is how nice we are to them.  Please, thank you, sir, and ma’am go a long way — as does a genuine attitude of caring.

Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but maybe we need a “card course” for customer service.  In conclusion, we all complain (INCLUDING ME) about how fast food workers don’t deserve $15/hour because they don’t get our orders right.  Maybe we don’t deserve $15/hour yet either — because we don’t educate people as to our worth nor do we treat people like customers.

The next time you deal with the public, remind yourself one thing.  They’re a customer.  And without customers, there is no EMS.

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.

Charity Begins At Home

Recently, I’ve seen more than a few EMS types posting requests for crowdfunding for them to engage in medical work, either as a medical missionary or in solidarity with various protest movements.  I get it.  The urge to help others, especially in moments of extreme need, is a huge motivator for many of us in public safety or medicine. (And yes, that’s controversial right there.  EMS is a mix of public safety and medicine.  We use a public safety model to deliver medical care.  Prehospital care is what I like to call “operational medicine.”)

But, to me, asking for crowdfunding to subsidize your passion reeks of so much that I don’t like about EMS.  There’s a vocal portion of people in EMS who are all about “LOOK AT ME!  VALIDATE MY EXISTENCE!  I’M DOING SOMETHING NOBLE AND YOU SHOULD APPRECIATE ME!”  It’s so common throughout EMS, as we see with the t-shirt and bumper sticker brigade. I get it.  We want to help.  But it seems that, for a vocal portion of EMS providers, we only want to help when we’re getting attention. (Bonus points if you appeal to social justice and get subsidized for being a medical activist…)

Bluntly, if you’re having to get others to pay for your altruism, you probably aren’t in a financial situation to be taking the time off to travel to a faraway land, whether overseas or even in the USA. It’s, at best, highly irresponsible.

The honest-to-God (or insert your deity of choice) truth is that there’s plenty of places local to each of us without access to medical care.  Heck, there’s plenty of places within an hour’s distance of each of us that are probably lacking access to quality EMS care and would love to have a passionate, dedicated volunteer provider on board.

Way too many folks in EMS make fun of volunteers and claim that volunteers are responsible for poor EMS standards and low wages.  Yet way too many people in EMS volunteer — when it gets them attention and a partially funded trip out of town.

As the old saying goes, charity begins at home.  Find your local service or local medical organization where you can begin to address the lack of care locally.  Ok, rant over.

A Note Of Optimism

I’ve been away from the blog a bit, mainly as a result of some writer’s block.  With an upcoming trip to the Texas EMS Conference to speak (Tuesday, November 22 at 2:00 PM, by the way) and to get some continuing education, I’m more rejuvenated about EMS than usual.  And then, tonight, I heard from a dear friend of mine who works for a large, urban third-service EMS system in Texas.

She proceeded to tell me about her patient earlier this evening (without violating patient confidentiality), while working a high-volume truck in the inner city.  Her patient needed to go to the hospital for treatment of an illness that had been lingering for a long time.  She made arrangements to have all of the patients’ belongings moved as that was one of his objections to getting care.  She then administered pain medicine because “that looked like it <expletive> hurt.”

Honestly, it’s what we’re supposed to do.  But a lot of us miss the mark.  But ultimately, she took care of a patient, got them to care, addressed their pain, and gave them a bit of dignity.  Stories like this don’t make the news.  They don’t make great t-shirt slogans.  But taking care of the least among us is exactly what EMS is supposed to be all about.  Things like this remind me why it’s a privilege to be a medic and why it’s truly a sacred honor to take care of patients.

I’m not a Bible verse kind of guy, but her patient care tonight reminds me of this verse, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  And ultimately, that’s the standard we should strive for as medics, as public servants, as caregivers, and as human beings.