Either Lead, Learn, or Please Stop Talking



The Internet is a wonderful educational resource.

I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody, but it’s good to be reminded. As little as 20 years ago, it simply wasn’t possible to learn things in the same way or to the same extent as today, because you had to seek out the information like Indiana Jones hunting a lost jewel-encrusted kumquat. Now there are a thousand PhD’s worth of knowledge available for anyone with a modem (although it behooves us to remember that much of it is still more easily found offline, and some remains completely undigitized even now).

I have always relied heavily upon this resource, and the majority of the synapses currently rattling around my noggin wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the ’net. I went to school, sure, but when it came to pursuing my interests and hobbies, that’s not where the money was. It even filled the bowl of my early work history — I worked in web design, various sectors of freelance writing, even as a certified locksmith, all of it made possible by self-education via an endless tap of bits and bytes.

When I first became involved in EMS, I expected that to remain true. But it wasn’t.


EMS 2.0: Good, bad, and ugly

Although somewhat inchoate in my early days, the EMS 2.0 movement was already getting legs, and was driven by an online community of paramedical luminaries hoping to remodel our damaged field into a modern, functioning system.

More recently, the larger arena of the medical community — with emergency medicine leading the way — has embraced FOAM, the general principle of free online medical knowledge-sharing. This is good stuff, and it’s just what we need.

But when I was a green EMT — and we all know how unprepared a freshly certified newbie can be — I turned to the web in the hopes it would help me learn, improve, and become better at my job. To some extent, it did. But I was also stymied.

Everywhere I turned I found veteran EMTs and paramedics advocating for increased education and training within our field. They seemed to passionately believe in making prehospital providers become better clinicians. Yet whenever I would ask medical questions to try and do exactly that — become better — I wouldn’t get answers. I would get further diatribes about the shortcomings of EMS education. Or suggestions to read a textbook (only rarely was one recommended). Or, if I pressed the point, the advice to go to paramedic or even medical school, because this sort of inquiry was likely to make me a fish out of water in my current profession.

Truth be told, I rarely got any answers where I didn’t dig them up myself. And I found this strange. Why would people purportedly so interested in advancing their profession seem to have so little motivation to actually do it?

Time has passed, and I have more perspective. In retrospect, the folks on the other end of the screen often didn’t know the answers to the questions I was asking, or only knew the answers in an incomplete or experiential way. Time has also brought along some actual progress, and there are more true FOAM resources out there.

Yet in the prehospital world, noisemaking still seems to predominate over knowledgemaking. For every blog post, website, forum thread, or social media group dedicated to transmitting information, there are ten whose primary occupation is posting long, repetitive screeds about the gaps in EMS education and the sorry state of our profession.

Now, everybody has a life outside of the internet (well, most everybody), and some of these people are indeed practicing what they preach. They’re teaching and precepting, writing and organizing, even lobbying to accomplish the changes we all dream of achieving.

Many others, though, seem to have endless time and energy for complaining about how dumb everyone else is, and very little for correcting that dumbness. More disturbingly, in recent times, the tone of these complaints has taken a strange turn toward arrogance. Novices foolish enough to poke out their heads are decried for not being up to the level of the complainer (interestingly, the level of the complainer is usually presumed to be the appropriate one — nothing more and nothing less). I imagine a great deal of this stems from frustration. But it certainly doesn’t contribute to a solution, nor does it speak very highly of the veterans behind the keyboards, who are missing the opportunity both to educate and to model professionalism. (Hint: there is no degree of expertise that ever makes arrogance appropriate.)

Yes, ideally we will move to a place where everybody staffing an ambulance has a strong initial education in anatomy, physiology, pathology, and medicine. Yes, this will probably entail degree-granting programs and a fundamental paradigm shift from our current model of training. But until then, there are thousands of EMTs and paramedics on the road or in the classroom with a grossly limited knowledge-base, and a significant number of them are motivated to do better than that. Are you going to blow them off until the day of rapture, or are you going to try and help?

I didn’t want to write this post, because I didn’t want to be part of the problem. This site aims to be zero percent complaining and 100% educating. But we’re just a drop in the bucket, because there are a lot of smart people out there who could do far more good than a hundred EMS Basics, and I wish they would remember it.

What the Heck is a General Impression?

I’m tired of all the mumbo-jumbo.

Here’s my beef. Every medical provider, particularly those who work in the acute setting (such as prehospital medicine, critical care, or the emergency department), talks about a concept familiar to us all: the overall, gut sense of how ill a patient appears. In EMS training this is often described as the “general impression,” the “view from the door,” “big sick vs. little sick,” or other euphemisms. It’s your basic opinion of whether a patient is doing okay or not, and it’s formed within the first moments of contact.

Whatever you call it, it’s important. In fact, this one factor is often what really drives your management decisions. If a patient looks truly sick, it may not matter what the vital signs show or how the history sounds; they’re getting zipped over to the hospital with bells on. Conversely, if they look really well, it’s hard to get excited even if they complain of “12 out of 10 pain” and their pulse is 100.

Here’s the rub: everybody acts like this quality is completely impossible to describe. If you tell me the patient “looked sick” and I ask what you mean, you’ll probably wave your hands and reply that it’s ineffable; that you “had to be there”; that you know it when you see it, but that it can’t be quantified and can’t be analyzed.

If true, that would mean it can’t be taught, either. New providers would have to learn to recognize this mystical patient presentation by dint of long, hard-earned experience.

And perhaps this is true. Certainly there are other aspects of patient evaluation and management that actually are too complex to reduce to simplicities. Indeed, one of the central skills of medicine, and one that humans are uniquely equipped to perform (hence the last one that computers will take from us), is our ability to extract a diagnosis from a large number of variables by recognizing subtle patterns.

But I doubt that’s true here. Why? Because you form your general impression within the first moments you meet a patient. There just aren’t very many factors that can come into play, because you haven’t obtained much information yet. The view from the door isn’t going to include ECG findings or subtleties of the OPQRST.

So I have a theory, and here it is. The entire mythical gestalt of your general impression actually involves only three things: the patient’s behavior, their breathing, and the appearance of their skin.


The first thing you notice when you meet a person is their behavior. This mostly means two things: their mental status and their level of distress.

A sick patient may be unconscious, or visibly lethargic; healthy people are awake and alert, because the brain is one of the last things the body allows to shut down. They’re also not obviously loopy, such as profoundly confused or combative, unless they have a chronic condition such as dementia.

And if sick people aren’t so sick they can’t complain at all, then their complaints reflect their acuity. They scream, they moan, they are visibly distressed by pain or fear. They say things like they’re dying or can’t breathe or can’t see or can’t move.

Some interpretation is needed here, because appropriate behavior can depend on the circumstances. Malingerers may say they can’t breathe when they clearly can. Panic attacks may present with greater distress than the physiology warrants. A child is most reassuring when grabbing at your stethoscope and stealing your gauze. And an infant may be normal when he cries vigorously and sick when he sits in silence. But it all comes down to how the patient is behaving.


The patient’s breathing can be evaluated from across a parking lot. You can’t auscultate or measure their oxygen saturation, but you can get a general idea.

Are they breathing at all? Are they laboring, wheezing, gasping agonally, gurgling through pulmonary edema? Are they chatting easily with the firefighters, or is sucking down air the sole focus of their attention?


Skin appearance is an idiot-proof and instantly recognizable finding.

The most common sick skins involve pallor and diaphoresis. Shocky or otherwise sympathetically-charged patients are starkly white and sweating like they’re in a sauna. It’s one of the most characteristic appearances of acute illness.

Cyanosis is next up. “Shortness of breath” in a patient who’s pink, warm, and dry is one thing, but it’s quite another when they’re turning blue.

Less common findings include the red-hot skin of fever, the yellow skin of severe jaundice, the dry skin of dehydration, and the dependent lividity of the very dead.

That’s all, folks

When you talk about a patient who looks sick, or “doesn’t feel right,” or has some other nebulous problem like being “toxic,” you’re not tapping into some vast, indescribable vault of clinical judgment. All you’re doing is using shorthand that refers to the patient’s behavior, breathing, and skin. (Notice how these factors are emphasized in our initial assessment.)

A gut belief that a patient has a big problem after a full work-up (including an H&P and diagnostics) is a different phenomenon, and suggests that your intuitive side is recognizing a larger pattern that your conscious self hasn’t yet been able to label. But that’s a distinct process from the instantaneous triage you perform when you first walk into a room.

There may be exceptional cases where something different sets off your alarm bells. But I bet most of the time, it can still be linked back to one of these three categories. (An example might be the frequent flier, well-known to you, who is usually stoic but today seems worried and wants transport. That’s a discrepancy in their behavior, ain’t it?)

Don’t believe me? Just think of how you tell the stories of your sick patients. I’ll bet you say things like, “I walk in, and he’s bent over gasping; his skin is completely soaked and looks whiter than copier paper.” Those are the factors that we recognize as important, and that’s why they’re so vividly evocative. They’re the colors we use to paint the picture of badness.

I may raise some ire by dismissing the voodoo surrounding the clinical gestalt, but here’s my challenge: if you believe there’s more behind your general impression of “sick or not sick,” then reply in the comments and tell me what it is. Maybe I’m missing or forgetting something. Maybe I’m doing it wrong and you’re doing it right. But if you can’t point to what’s missing, then I’m betting there’s nothing more to it after all.

The Long-term Care Ombudsman: Advocates on Call

Although we like to talk around here about exciting topics like shock and airway management, the reality is that for many EMS providers — particularly at the BLS level — a large part of this job isn’t stabilizing emergencies. It’s routine work like dialysis trips and stable transfers from nursing facilities. Some folks find this stuff dull, and it can be dull, but the best way to make it interesting is to approach it just like the exciting stuff and try to be excellent at both aspects of the job.

How can you excel at bringing Mr. Smith to his third doctor’s appointment this week? You can learn to be a really good patient advocate on his behalf, something that almost all residents of long-term care facilities need. We’re well-positioned to fill this role because we have a one-on-one relationship with our patients. Unfortunately, we often lack the know-how and leverage to resolve most of their problems.

Our feature in the August 2014 issue of EMS World talks about how to use the ubiquitous Long-Term Care Ombudsman program to help. It’s easy, it works, and even if you didn’t know about it, there’s one available in your area. Give it a read and think about bringing it to bear the next time the guy on your stretcher has something to say!

Murder by Checklist

Reader Steve Carroll passed along this recent case report from the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

It’s behind a paywall, so let’s summarize.


What happened

A young adult male was shot three times — right lower quadrant, left flank, and proximal right thigh. Both internal and external bleeding were severe. A physician bystander* tried to control it with direct pressure, to no avail.

With two hands and a lot of force, however (he weighed over 200 pounds), he was able to hold continuous, direct pressure to the upper abdomen, tamponading the aorta proximal to all three wounds.


Manual aortic pressure


Bleeding was arrested and the patient regained consciousness as long as compression was held. The bystander tried to pass the job off to another, smaller person, who was unable to provide adequate pressure.

When the scene was secured and paramedics arrived, they took over the task of aortic compression. But every time they interrupted pressure to move him to the stretcher or into the ambulance, the patient lost consciousness again. Finally en route, “it was abandoned to obtain vital signs, intravenous access, and a cervical collar.”

The result?

Within minutes, the patient again bled externally and became unresponsive. Four minutes into the 9-minute transfer, he had a pulseless electrical activity cardiac arrest, presumed a result of severe hypovolemia. Advanced cardiac life support resuscitation was initiated and continued for the remaining 5-minute transfer to the ED.

The patient did not survive.


When the cookbook goes bad

The idea of aortic compression is fascinating, but I don’t think it’s the most important lesson to this story.

Much has been said about the drawbacks of rigidly prescriptive protocol-based practice in EMS. But one could argue that our standard teachings allow for you to defer interventions like IV access if you’re caught up preventing hemorrhage. Like they say, sometimes you never get past the ABCs.

The problem here is not necessarily the protocols or the training. It’s the culture. And it’s not just us, because you see similar behavior in the hospital and in other domains.

It’s the idea that certain things just need to be done, regardless of their appropriateness for the patient. It’s the idea that certain patients come with a checklist of actions that need to be dealt with before you arrive at the ED. Doesn’t matter when. Doesn’t matter if they matter.

It’s this reasoning: “If I deliver a trauma patient without a collar, vital signs, and two large-bore IVs, the ER is going to tear me a new one.”

In other words, if you don’t get through the checklist, that’s your fault. But if the patient dies, that’s nobody’s fault.

From the outside, this doesn’t make much sense, because it has nothing to do with the patient’s pathology and what might help them. It has everything to do with the relationship between the paramedic and the ER, or the paramedic and the CQI staff, or the paramedic and the regional medical direction.

Because we work alone out there, without anybody directly overseeing our practice, the only time our actions are judged is when we drop off the patient. Which has led many of us to prioritize the appearance of “the package.” Not the care we deliver on scene or en route. Just the way things look when we arrive.

That’s why crews have idled in ED ambulance bays trying over and over to “get the tube” before unloading. That’s why we’ve had patients walk to the ambulance, climb inside, and sit down, only to be strapped down to a board.

And that’s why we’ve let people bleed to death while we record their blood pressure and needle a vein.

It’s okay to do our ritual checklist-driven dance for the routine patients, because that’s what checklists are for; all the little things that seem like a good idea when there’s time and resources to achieve them. But there’s something deeply wrong when you turn away from something critical — something lifesaving — something that actually helps — in order to achieve some bullshit that doesn’t matter one bit.

If you stop tamponading a wound to place a cervical collar, that cervical collar killed the patient. If you stop chest compressions to intubate, that tube killed the patient. If you delay transport in penetrating trauma to find an IV, that IV killed the patient.

No, let’s be honest. If you do those things, you killed the patient.

Do what actually matters for the patient in front of you. Nobody will ever criticize you for it, and if they do, they are not someone whose criticism should bother you. The only thing that should bother you is killing people while you finish your checklist.


* Correction: the bystander who intervened was not a physician, but “MD” (Matthew Douma), the lead author, who is an RN. — Editor, 7/22/14

Worthy Words

Quotation Marks

I admit that I’m a sucker for a good quote. Truth be told, medicine is exactly the type of enterprise that needs quotes. It’s a basically noble endeavor that’s nevertheless rife with the sort of frustrations, obstacles, and everyday nonsense that tends to make us forget why we’re doing it.

Quotes help us remember. A few concise, perfect words from people smarter than us — they needn’t be real people, either, because sometimes fiction is more true than fact — can paint a picture that reminds us in a flash how to do this job, why we’re doing it, and to whom it matters.

To that end, we’ve set up a page to collect the best medicine-related quotes we can find (you can find it in the menu above as well). Some are about EMS, some aren’t, but if you’re on the job, I bet many of them will ring true. Take a look and check back when you can; we’ll try to keep adding the good stuff as we come across it.