Oldest Trick in the Book


I’ve never been to nursing school. But I like to imagine it goes something like this:

On the first day, you walk into class, surrounded by other bright-eyed, eager young students ready to learn the art and science of nursing. Textbooks weigh down your bag, and your pencils are sharp and ready.

Before you stands your instructor, an impressive-looking MSN whose carriage suggests many, many nights spent awake amidst the cool blue lights and quiet beeps of a MICU. As you watch, she strides to the whiteboard and writes in block letters:

Lesson One: The ID Flip

Lesson two is eye-rolling.

Most hospitals, just like most ambulance services, require that clinical staff wear an ID badge at all time. This identifies them by name and role (nurse, doctor, PA, etc.), and often gives them access to secure areas as well.

Long ago, some canny soul discovered that when patients know your name, they can complain about you. If they decide that they don’t like you, whether justified or not, they can call people — like your boss — and unleash angry, entitled, and very personalized tirades about “Sarah Roberts, that mean witch who told me to shut up and stop smoking heroin.”

“Well,” we figure; “if they don’t know our name, they can’t complain.” So although the powers-that-be did insist that badges be worn, we started hanging them in odd places, like from our belt, or inside a pocket. Or covering them with stickers and other things. But the best of all answer of all was elegantly geometric, made especially easy by free-spinning retractable ID clips: simply twist the card so it faces your chest, and the only thing visible is whatever text happens to be printed on the back. Technically, you’re still wearing the thing, and if the boss notices you can just say “whoops, it got twisted,” but nobody can actually read your name, and, ninja-like, you can move through the ward unseen, a bescrubbed ghost.

The nurses have turned this into an art-form, and in some places it’s like finding a four-leafed clover to see an RN with a visible ID (usually I figure they’re new there). But we’ve become awfully fond of this in EMS as well.

People, I realize that the world’s a rough place, that patients can be impossible to please, and that even the best of us need to take steps to ensure we still have a job tomorrow. I do understand this. But there’s a certain point where you have to stop digging trenches, and realize that if you’re giving great care, following procedure, behaving professionally, and generally toeing the line, then you should be willing to stand behind your work. If you’re employed at the kind of place that’s willing to take any complaint as reason to show you the door, I assure you that no amount of ID-flipping will save you. Your days are numbered. Of course, even a good service will eventually start clearing their throat and looking at you pointedly if your personnel file begins to grow particularly fat, but at that point, maybe you really should consider managing your douche coefficient.

Besides, this should all be moot, because when you meet your patient you’re introducing yourself by name anyway. Because that’s just common courtesy when you greet people. And patients are people. Right?

Strive to do the kind of work that allows you the confidence to stand behind it. When someone points at you with forehead veins a-pulsing and demands to know your name so your supervisor can “hear about it,” tell them and tell them proudly. Sometimes, doing the right thing won’t be a defense against trouble — but you can be sure that playing “who, me?” will run out of rope even sooner than that.

Clip your ID somewhere obvious — mine goes on my shoulder — where patients and staff alike can easily see it, and know what to call you and what role you’ll be playing in this show. When I see somebody with a visible ID, I take this as a good sign about their responsibility and willingness to own their work. And those are qualities we need in EMS.

Live from Prospect St: The Reluctant Tumble (conclusion)

Previously part 1 and part 2

Being reluctant to force Joe into an undesired ambulance ride, the crew contacted their supervisor. He arrived, evaluated the patient, agreed with their conclusions, and called Dr. Scrubs to discuss the matter. He was unable to dissuade the doctor from his decision.

The crew and supervisor approached Joe together and informed him of the circumstances; although all parties agreed that he should rightly be able to refuse transport, they felt they had been overruled by a higher authority, and if he would not come voluntarily they would be forced to compel him. Under this duress, Joe finally agreed to be transported, loudly and vocally protesting.

He was taken to his preferred hospital and care was handed off to staff with a full description of the situation. Less than 30 minutes later, another crew was sent back to the hospital to return Joe home; the attending ED physician had deemed his involuntary hold to be invalid and inappropriate, and refused to hold him against his will. No further evaluation was performed.

The encounter was documented extensively and quality improvement measures involving EMS and the base physician are expected.



This case was not medically complicated, but it involved some difficult issues of consent and risk. Let’s look at the medicine and then at the wrinkles.

Medical Considerations

We were dispatched for a chief complaint of a fall — a very common mechanism of injury. When evaluating the fall, what should our main concerns be?

First, we should examine the mechanism itself. How far was the fall? In this case, as it often is, the fall was from a standing height, and from a standstill (i.e. not propelled while running, stumbling while breakdancing, etc.). This is often seen as the dividing line for significant versus non-significant falls; in many areas, falls from standing height or greater are considered an indication for spinal immobilization. (Other areas say greater than standing height; 3x standing height or more; or other numbers.) The elderly in particular are considered at higher risk for spinal injury, due to weakened bones and tighter ligamentous connections between vertebrae.

Typically, a blow to the head with loss of consciousness is also considered high risk for spinal injury. This is under the assumption that a blow with enough force to cause LOC may also have enough force to damage the spine. These considerations are all valid, but should only be seen as some of the many factors involved in stratifying risk; they must be considered alongside other elements like the physical assessment. In some systems, you may be forced to immobilize based on mechanism without other considerations. In others, you may be allowed to rule out immobilization based on certain findings, most of which Joe has; for instance, he denies neck or back pain or tenderness, denies peripheral parasthesias (numbness or tingling) or weakness, ambulated well, turns his head, and has no confounding factors like a distracting injury or altered mental status. In any case, the post-fall presentation was so benign that risk seemed low, and given the patient’s overall reluctance it is highly unlikely that he would have consented to a collar and board.

The use of warfarin (trade name Coumadin), on the other hand, does significantly increase the risk of intracranial hemorrhage (ICH), especially after blunt trauma to the head. Although again, Joe’s assessment was very reassuring — normal vitals, no complaints, and a baseline neurological status — it is very possible for ICH to have a delayed onset of presentation. The best example of this is the subdural hematoma, where cases of moderate severity sometimes take hours or days to develop, due to the venous rather than arterial source of bleeding. This delay is particularly common in the elderly, where (possibly due to shrinking of the gray matter, which leaves additional room for blood to collect before pressure begins compressing the brain) a classic scenario is the fall with a blow to the head, no complaints for hours afterward, and then sudden deterioration. Some sources state that 60% of geriatric fall patients who experience LOC from a blow to the head will eventually die as a result. Since in this case, we were delayed on scene for quite some time, there would be value in ongoing and repeated assessments of symptoms, neurological status, and vital signs while we waited around.

The patient’s pupils were unusual in appearance, which can be an indicator of brain herniation; however, this syndrome typically presents with one very large and round pupil. An irregularly shaped pupil as we saw here is more indicative of a structural defect, the most common of which is probably cataract surgery, which can leave the pupil off-round.

An incomplete medical history is common in scene calls involving the elderly. However, many do carry med lists, and in most cases you can reconstruct the majority of the patient’s diagnoses based on their medications. In this case, we found digoxin (or digitalis), which is almost always used to control atrial fibrillation; this is consistent with the patient’s irregular pulse, and with the warfarin, which helps prevent A-fib induced clots. Metformin (Glucophage) is an antidiabetic that helps control glucose levels. Citalopram (Celexa) is a common antidepressant of the SSRI type. Advair (fluticasone and salmeterol) is a preventative asthma/COPD inhaler combining a steroid with a long-acting beta agonist; it is used regularly to minimize flare-ups and is not a rescue inhaler. Omeprazole (Prilosec) is used for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), aka heartburn. Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) used for pain relief and reduction of inflammation.

As VinceD noted in the comments, one essential question in any fall — and indeed in almost any traumatic event — is what caused it. Here we have a somewhat vague account which suggests a mechanical fall, i.e. tripping or loss of balance; this is not necessarily benign, as a history of repeated mechanical falls suggests deteriorating coordination or strength, but it is usually not indicative of an acute medical problem. However, many elderly patients (and some of the younger ones, too) will attribute any fall to tripping, so this claim should be taken with a grain of salt. It helps to have a witness to the event, as we do here, although witnesses are not always reliable either. In any case, what we want to know is: what happened just before the fall? Was the patient simply walking and tripped on a rug? Did he have seizure-like activity? Was he standing normally when he suddenly lost muscle tone and collapsed? Did he complain of feeling faint or dizzy? Was he exerting himself or straining on the toilet? Things happen for a reason.


Ethical and Legal Considerations

The bigger question is whether it’s okay for Joe to refuse transportation.

This is an odd question, because ordinarily we assume that people are free to go where they want, and calling 911 (or having it called for them) does not surrender this right. However, there is an attitude among those with a duty to act, such as healthcare providers and public safety officers, that individuals who are not cognitively able to understand their situation and make decisions in their best interest need to be protected from their own impaired judgment. This is equivalent to taking your friend’s keys so he won’t drive drunk, under the assumption that he wouldn’t want to drive drunk were he making sensible decisions. The legal term is implied consent, the same principle by which we transport children, drunks, and unconscious people.

How do we know if somebody is unable to make their own decisions? There is not an obvious line. For many providers, their rule of thumb is the old “A&Ox4”: if someone knows who they are, where they are, when it is, and what’s going on, then they are alert and oriented and capable of making decisions. Of course, this is only one piece of the mental puzzle. Social workers, psychiatrists, and other specialists have a full battery of tests that can help further reveal cognitive capacity. Can you perform these in the field? It’s probably more than you’re likely to do, although you might perform something simple like the MMSE. But some basic questions that highlight the patient’s judgment can help supplement your routine assessment — questions like, “Suppose you were at the mall when you started to smell smoke and heard the fire alarm. What would you do?” where any rational response is acceptable.

It’s important for the patient to be able to demonstrate that they understand what’s going on. Even someone with ordinary mental competence — unless they’re a fellow knowledgable healthcare professional — needs to be informed (to the best ability of the provider) of the possible risks and consequences of refusing care. In this case, it would involve giving them some description of the above possibilities (spinal fracture, head bleed, etc.), and ideally having the patient then relate them back to you, demonstrating good comprehension of those facts. The base physician’s view that Joe hadn’t fully demonstrated this understanding was a key part of his decision that he needed to be transported against his will.

Other important points are to ensure that the patient knows that refusal doesn’t preclude future care (“if you change your mind, you can always call back”); and that the ability of the providers to evaluate the patient on scene is at best limited. Any implication that you know what’s really happening to the patient or can definitively rule in or rule out any medical problem is unwise and legally risky. In fact, even suggesting possibilities or probabilities can be problematic if you’re wrong; on the other hand, failing to do so can leave them uninformed, so this can be a Catch 22. Your best bet is to outline some basic possibilities, carefully inform them of the limits of your training and resources, and be smart enough that you generally know what you’re talking about in the first place.

One complication in this case is the presence of someone who claims to be Joe’s health care proxy. A proxy (closely linked to the idea of a durable power of attorney) is a person whom, while of sound mind, you designate to make decisions for you if at a later time you are not of sound mind. Crucially, if you are still capable of decision-making, a proxy does not have the ability to override you; their role is to act on your behalf when you cannot. In other words, the decision of Joe’s proxy is only relevant if we do find (or in some areas, if an authority such as a judge has decided) that he’s incompetent to refuse or consent to treatment; thus, her presence does not necessarily alter the basic dilemma.

In this case, the physician’s attitude was that the problem was primarily medical: does the patient need emergency department evaluation to rule out dangerous processes? Medically, he does. However, the first question actually needs to be: Is the patient capable of evaluating risk and making decisions in his own best interest? If he is, then he is technically “allowed” to decide whatever he wants. Even a clearly dying man can refuse medical care based on religious views, personal preference, or any reason whatsoever (although barring a proxy or advanced directive, once he’s unconscious he can usually be treated under implied consent). This is different from the person who actively tries to take his own life; for philosophical reasons we view this as different from passively allowing oneself to die for lack of medical treatment. We prevent people from committing suicide but allow them to refuse medical care.

Realistically, although this fundamental right does not change, it’s fair to consider the surrounding medical circumstances to help decide how pressing and high-risk the matter is. In this case the doctor clearly felt that the risk was so high that it required going to extraordinary lengths, including overruling the patient’s own decisions and potentially even harming him, to ensure that a dangerous situation wasn’t “missed” — in short, that the ends justified the means. Dr. House is famous for this approach.

Legally, in most areas EMS providers are seen as operating under the bailiwick and legal authority of their medical director, and online medical control is an extension of this authority. In other words, within reason we are bound by the orders of medical control. The details of this relationship vary, and are not always fully explored. For an example, consider this true story from 1997 in New Jersey:

A North Bergen dual-medic crew is dispatched to a pregnant, full term female in cardiac arrest. Downtime is unknown, and they work the code for a number of minutes without response. Determining that the mother is likely unsalvageable, and concerned for the health of the fetus, they contact medical control. After a “joint decision” the base physician verbally talks them through performing an emergency C-section on scene. They deliver and successfully resuscitate the fetus, and both patients are transported. The mother is declared dead soon afterwards, but the infant lives for a number of days before dying in the hospital. In the aftermath, the paramedics are cited for violating their scope of practice, and their licenses to practice are revoked in the state of New Jersey. The physician is forced to undergo remediation training to maintain his medical control privileges.

Is the moral that acting in the patient’s best interest is not always a defense against liability? Maybe. Is the moral that medical control cannot authorize you to perform otherwise illegal acts? Maybe. Is the moral that we should protect ourselves before the patient? I don’t know about that, but it’s something to think about. In this case, the course for Joe that seems most ethical to me — allowing the patient to make his own decisions — also lets us avoid potential liability for battering and kidnapping. However, it does force us to refuse a direct order from medical control. Invoking our supervisor gives us a bigger boat either way, and would be a big help to protect us from trouble coming from our employer, one of the most likely sources. It’s also true that, while we may have believed that Joe was competent, he is at least somewhat diminished, so we’re less than completely confident. Nobody wants to put themselves on the line by taking a stand, only to be proven wrong.

Fortunately in this case we were able to avoid getting violent at all, but it was a near thing. If it did prove necessary, it should have been done with ample manpower and many hands; in some areas chemical sedation by paramedics may also be authorized. And I would certainly not recommend acting without the doctor’s signature on a legal document.

With everything viewed in retrospect, the situation would have been much more easily resolved had the doctor not been involved in the process. At the same time, however, if a simple refusal had been accepted, and CQI later went over the call — especially if Joe experienced a bad outcome — the crew would have been in a difficult place.

No matter what, such a situation is highly unusual, flush with liability, and should be thoroughly documented in all respects.

Live from Prospect St: The Reluctant Tumble (part 2)

You kneel beside Joe and ask, “So, would you like to go to the hospital?”

No!” he vociferously replies — a theme that will be repeated often over the next few minutes.

You explain the risks — that given his anticoagulation (Coumadin), and given that he struck his head and seemingly lost consciousness, there is a non-trivial possibility of bleeding into or around his brain. That although he feels well now, it’s not impossible for such a problem to develop insidiously and not manifest with symptoms until it’s too late. That you can take him to the hospital of his choice, in total comfort, he can receive some quick tests, and if nothing is wrong he’ll be back home before he knows it.

Joe wants to hear none of this. He just came out of the hospital, enjoyed it not at all, and that was just the latest episode in a long series of hospitalizations. “They ruined my hip” on one occasion, he opines, and he’s already been fooled before by “home before he knows it.” No sir; he’s not going anywhere.

You try, your partner tries, the neighbors try, the proxy tries. No way, no how.

Well, okay. But this is not the sort of incident to just brush aside, and you’re well aware of the risk inherent to patients refusing transport, particularly in a risky circumstances like this. So you pick up your phone and hit your hotkey for medical control.

“Needletown Hospital; this is Dr. Scrubs. How can I help you?”

“Hi doc, this is Maverick from Poketown BLS 48. We’re on scene with a high risk refusal.”

You fill him in with the story. He asks a couple questions, then requests to speak with Joe, and finally talks to the proxy for a few minutes. When the phone gets back to you, Dr. Scrubs informs you that he really thinks Joe needs to go.

Well, okay. You dive back in, bolstered with a physician’s opinion, and attempt to get Joe on board the hospital train. He’s not having it. The whole entourage keeps hammering away at him, but he’s simply not budging.

You call back Dr. Scrubs, bringing him up to speed. “We’re making no headway here. He just doesn’t want to go.”

He asks to speak to Joe, and the sounds of his best MD magic come wafting over the speaker, but Joe just has less and less polite things to say, until finally he comes out with, “You’ll have to handcuff me before I’m going anywhere! And just go ahead and try it!” He hangs up on the doctor.

You call back. “I gotta tell you, doc, I don’t see us convincing this guy. If you tell me that we must take him, then I’ll take him, but I think we’d have to do violence to him and start a battle royale here. Is that what you want?”

Dr. Scrubs replies, “Well, I think he needs to be seen, and it sounds like his proxy does too. I’d like to hear your opinion.”

You pause, then carefully say, “I do not think that it would be inappropriate to leave him, although obviously it would be preferable if he came in. I don’t know that I’d make the same decision, but I might, and I don’t see the situation as so high-risk as to justify anything really extreme.”

“Head injury, on Coumadin, loss of consciousness, you don’t think he needs to be seen?”

“We obviously can’t clear him here. But he’s stone normal by our assessment from every angle, and he’s not going to be left alone.”

“Well, I don’t think that’s a great idea. And he wasn’t really able to logically explain to me the risks of his decision. Anyway, his proxy agrees, so I’m not sure if I see the problem.”

“Doc, the problem is that although he does have someone here who says she’s his health care proxy, by our assessment he is at this time totally oriented, competent, and exercising sound judgment. So I’m not really comfortable kidnapping him, unless you want to sign a Section [your state’s involuntary mental health process, for those who are a danger to themselves or others].”

“Sure, I’ll do that. I can fax it to your dispatch and to the receiving hospital.”

“So you want us to tackle him?”

“Do what you have to do.”

You hang up the phone and look around. Police have left the scene, but could be easily recalled. Joe sits before you, a 79-year-old in fair condition, but no Evander Holyfield.

What do you do?

What are the legal considerations?

What are the ethical considerations?

Spinning a Yarn: The Chronological Narrative

I was never explicitly taught to write documentation in school. It fell into the “They’ll train you how they want it when you’re hired” category, and all we got was a rough idea that there were a few common formats for writing your narratives.

I’ve experimented with a few different models, including the typical SOAP, CHART, and chronological formats. I don’t want to rehash the basics of how these work, because you’ve probably either learned about them or you will. However, on a regular basis I get coworkers peering over my shoulder and commenting on my own somewhat unusual style, so I thought I’d share it for anyone looking for something new.

The biggest change in my own narratives came when I moved to a service that wrote their documentation on computers. I have poor handwriting, write slowly, and don’t enjoy it; however, I’m a fast and comfortable typist, so once we switched from pencil to keyboard my narratives improved substantially. One of the early changes I made was a conscious effort to remove 99% of the abbreviations and shorthand; when typing, it’s usually just as fast to write it out fully, and it makes everything much more readable. (If you ever think to yourself that “everyone knows what YEOIOCRIPIDRN means,” attend M&M rounds sometime and listen to a room full of fellow EMS professionals try to puzzle it out.)

The goal with my narratives is to produce an easily readable, standalone document that tells the story of the call in a similar order to how I experienced it. Because our electronic PCR software includes separate sections to record details of the physical exam, vital signs, and so forth, I’m able to omit many of the nuts and bolts. What I do mention explicitly is all unusual findings, pertinent negatives, and whatever mundane details are necessary to knit the story together. One of the risks with the free-form chronological narrative is forgetting to include this or that assessment finding, but fortunately the ePCR prompts me for these things in other screens. Typically for EMS, documentation is one-half a record of patient care and one-half covering our butts; so although I try to minimize it, I also include some amount of standard butt-covering. This should be customized to what issues your own employer happens to care about. (I had one that insisted every patient be covered with two wool blankets in the winter; so, guess what ended up in the paperwork.)

I modeled my template on the discharge notes you find in hospital charts. I always found these to be pleasantly readable and professional; particularly if you start with the ED and admission note, read the hospital course, and finally the discharge summary, you have a great top-to-bottom view of what’s going on with the patient. I write chronologically, because it keeps the story understandable and because it allows me to show the order that things occurred, which is a central part of many calls; for example, we did X treatment, but then the patient began complaining of Y, so we changed things up to Z treatment — very different from if we’d known about Y from the beginning. However, I don’t adhere zealously to the timeline if it’s not especially relevant, so I’ll often group together assessment or treatment items for efficiency; as a result it’s often not too different from a loose SOAP or CHART format.

I’ll give three examples of hypothetical calls here: one routine transfer, one typical medical emergency, and one critical trauma call. This will seem wordy, but for many unremarkable calls the majority of the narrative can be written prior to arrival, simply leaving blanks for the bits you don’t know, then filling them in and fixing anything unexpected afterwards. (It’s helpful to understand how the actual PCR will print out once it’s completed and [in our case] faxed; this lets you know how it reads, what inserts where, and so on.)

Dispatched non-emergent to Waldorf Memorial Hospital (6 West) for discharge to Mumford Rehab.

Arrived on floor and met by staff, who provide paperwork/signature/report. Patient is Mr. Jeeves, a 73 yo male with hx of COPD and CHF, who presented with chest pain and dyspnea. He was found negative on cardiac enzymes with nonspecific ECG changes, admitted for further monitoring, and eventually underwent cardiac catheterization with no acute occlusions found. He is now stable and is being discharged to short-term rehab for gait training.

He is found in bed, alert and semi-Fowler’s, fully oriented with some general confusion, and denying acute complaints. There is some peripheral pallor, and non-pitting edema of the lower extremities. Vitals unremarkable, as noted above [note: in our ePCR, the vitals screen prints out above the narrative]. A locked IV is present in his left forearm.

He is transferred to our stretcher, secured with straps x5 and rails x2, and loaded onto A56. Transport routinely with monitoring en route. No changes in status during transport.

Arrived without incident, offloaded, and brought Mr. Jeeves to his room. He is transferred into bed and left in a low position, rails up, with his call button and belongings. His care and paperwork are transferred to staff.

Dispatched emergent to apartment in Malden for abdominal pain.

Arrived on scene to find Malden FD and PD with an adult female seated, alert. She is Ms. Bergerac, a 66 yo female with hx of NIDDM, who awoke 2 hours prior with general nausea, weakness, and abdominal pain. She describes the pain as 5/10, dull and diffuse, with a gradual onset over the past several days; she states the nausea has been ongoing over the same period, with the weakness new since this morning. She states she has been taking her normal meds, but has not eaten since yesterday due to the nausea. She denies vomiting, chest pain, dyspnea, headache, or parasthesias, and states she has felt normal with no unusual events up until several days ago. She denies any falls or other trauma.

She presents as fully oriented but slightly obtunded and slow to respond, and somewhat ill in appearance. Her pupils are midsize and PERL, and her lungs are clear and equal bilaterally. Abdomen is supple and non-tender with no visible discoloration, distention or mass. She is negative for arm drift, facial droop, or speech slurring, and demonstrates equal and unremarkable CSM x4. She is tachypneic, with an irregularly irregular radial pulse; her BGL is 46.

She is given 15g of oral glucose, which she tolerates well, and is transferred to our stairchair. She is brought outside, then transferred to our stretcher, where she is secured with straps x5 and rails x2. She is loaded onto A80 and transported non-emergent to House of God Medical Center with continuing assessment en route.

Repeat vitals note a BGL of 60 and minor increase in pulse. No other changes during transport.

Arrived without incident, offloaded, and brought Ms. Bergerac into the ED. She is transferred to a bed and left with rails up. Care transferred to RN with report.

Dispatched emergent to Denmark St. and Mulvaney Rd. in Waltham for an MVA.

Arrived with Waltham FD to find two vehicles in the center of the road. A small sedan has a heavily damaged back end with 2ft of compression; a midsize SUV is behind it with a broken windshield and crushed front left wheelwell. An adult male is found ambulatory, who states he was the driver of the sedan, with no apparent injury and denying any complaints. He states that he needs no care but wants his son evaluated, a teenaged male still in the front passenger seat, who also appears well and denies complaints. The father states they were struck from behind at unknown speed while stopped at a light. Both occupants endorse restraints, and there is no gross intrusion or airbag deployment. They are left in care of FD and a second unit is requested for further care.

An adult male is found in the driver’s seat of the SUV, slumped to the right against his seatbelt. He groans to painful stimulus but does not rouse. His skin is pale and cool, respirations are slow and irregular at 8/min, and radial pulse is thready and regular at 124. Breath sounds are grossly clear and equal. Oxygen is provided at 15LPM by NRB. An open abrasion is present on his left forehead, with blood found on the left upright support. There is no other obvious external trauma. A frontal airbag is deployed. There is starring of the windshield, seemingly from the airbag, and no other interior damage. ALS is requested.

The patient is manually stabilized and a C-collar is applied; he is rapidly extricated, exposed, and fully immobilized to a long spine board. He is placed on our stretcher and secured with straps x5 and rails x2, then loaded onto A104. (A11 arrives and assumes care of the other patients; see their runsheet for further.) Transport emergently to Intergalactic Trauma Center with continuing assessment en route.

Bleeding from the head wound is minor. There is diagonal bruising of the chest consistent with seatbelt trauma, and no other major bleeding or deformity. The trachea is midline and there is no appreciable JVD. Chest rise is equal bilaterally, the ribs are stable, and the abdomen is supple and without distension. Vitals note a BP of 184/100, HR 80, and increasingly shallow respirations at 6/min. A grossly dilated right pupil is also noted to develop en route. An OPA is inserted and well-tolerated. Ventilations are assisted by BVM with mild hyperventilation at a rate of 20/min.

P4 intercepts at this time and assumes dual-medic care.

[Documentation note: See PCR 121512 for full patient demographics, billing, and ALS care en route.]

Job Stability in EMS

Let’s just get it out of the way. As a Basic EMT, and to a slightly lesser but still very similar extent as a Paramedic, you are typically viewed as unskilled rank-and-file. You are more like the kid flipping burgers at Burger King than a nurse or a doctor. This is a consequence of supply vs. demand, low barriers to entry in this business, and minimal labor and political representation. I don’t think it’s right, but it is the way it is.

(Note: those working for fire departments and other public services may find that this information does not apply. If that describes you, I applaud you for your good fortune. But for the thousands employed with private services, read on.)

This is a difficult and personal subject for me. The start of my career was a rocky one; there were various factors, but in the end, the one overarching reason was that I didn’t understand how to be the kind of EMT that employers wanted. The lessons that follow may not apply everywhere, but based on my experiences with numerous companies in two different geographical areas, they are generally more true than not, and if you’re newly entering this industry in a field position, they’re worth holding close to your heart.

First, understand that, as we noted, you are not a high-value employee. In fact, you are essentially a low-wage service worker, and you are largely interchangeable with anyone who holds the same certification. Moreover, the job market is currently Bad, and even when it was better, there were people out there who would do this job for free; in other words, even though demand for your skills is still reasonable, supply is very high. Although your service needs a certain number of EMTs and/or paramedics, and although they may perform some amount of screening or testing to find the best candidates (better employers will do more of this), as a general rule there is a limitless supply of people standing behind you, all holding the same card. And your company is just as willing to pay them instead of you.

Second, your employer is in the business of making money. Just like BK needs someone to flip their burgers, ambulance companies need someone to drive and tech their ambulances, so you are a necessary part of their business model. But you are far from unique or irreplaceable. Since it’s not very difficult to hire an EMT, it’s never very difficult to fire one and hire another. So if you ever become more trouble to keep around than you’re worth, you’re inching towards termination.

Third, and most importantly, the money is in the money. A principled and respectable private service will try to drive their financial success through clinical excellence, but whether they do or not, their financial success remains the bottom line. Your Lifepaks and MDTs may or may not get upgraded, but the marketing and PR is never in question. So if by your actions, inaction, or even by association you’re ever involved with something that jeopardizes your company’s revenue stream, you’re absolutely begging them to reconsider taking their chances on a fresh hire.

So, do you want to keep this job, be it briefly or for a long career? (Whether you should be taking advice from me is a fair question, but at least you’re hearing it from experience at the wrong end of every error.) Job stability in this field depends on three skills, and you don’t need them all. Pick any two and you’ll do okay. You might even sneak by with just one. But when the day comes that you don’t have any to protect you, your days are numbered.


1. Protect the Money

You can kill patients, break equipment, curse like a sailor, and drive rigs off cliffs, but if you can avoid impacting your employer’s bottom line, you’ll probably be fine.

Billing is big. Try your hardest to help generate billable runs, because getting paid for your calls is how money is made, and consistently interfering with this will bring you the wrong sort of attention. Whatever documentation hoops they ask you to jump through, as long as they’re not unethical or detrimental to patient care, just do it.

Furthermore, your company’s continued existence is predicated on maintaining certain contracts that it holds with cities, counties, hospitals, and other facilities. These contracts give your company the right to transport some or all of their patients, and that can mean many calls and many dollars per year. If you look unprofessional to someone important, piss off a staff member, or make a clinical error that comes to the wrong person’s attention, you are making the Powers That Be at that organization wonder if they shouldn’t be handing their patients and dollars to a different ambulance company. And that is numero uno on the list of ways to lose your job. Don’t think that the facts will save you, and don’t think that they’ll be reasonable or go to bat for you, because if being able to say “the people responsible have been terminated” is good for business, then nothing else will matter.

Play the game. If you’re asked to wash the truck with a toothbrush, wear a tie and a monocle, and give all of your patients free backrubs, just do it. Play the game, or someone else will.


2. Be Liked

They never taught you this in school (and school was where you’d have found many of us just before we became EMTs), but if the right people like you, nearly anything is possible. If not…

You don’t have to be universally popular, but you should not be “that guy,” because when push comes to shove, somebody with an office and a salary is going to have to decide whether you should keep working here, and if they never liked you to begin with you’re not going to have any armor.

Here’s the big, big secret. You may think that life should be fair, or at least employment should, and if you do your job and don’t screw up too big, there’s no grounds to fire you. In other jobs, you might be right. But we just saw that you hold no sway in these parts, cowboy. Moreover, in most places you were hired under a contract that included the words “at will,” which means they can get rid of you for no reason at all. (Wholly legal? Maybe, maybe not, but most of us won’t be bringing any lawsuits, because it’s a lot of trouble and being “the dude who sued” is not great for your future employability.) So here’s the way it really works: they can terminate anyone, or they can keep anyone. It all depends on what they want to do.

If you’re well-liked by the people who have a say, then you can screw up, and it will be water under the bridge. It may be documented and recorded, or it may simply be swept aside, but nothing will come of it. On the other hand, if you’re someone they’d rather no longer worked there, then you don’t even need to screw up to find your way to the chopping block. Because the fact is, nobody is perfect; even if you think you’re a company man, in the 40+ hours you punch each week, they can find a violation here, an error there, a complaint, a concern. If you ever start getting called to the deck for driving 26 in a 25 MPH zone or parting your hair left instead of right, update your resume, because this is known as “building a paper trail.” (If you’re lucky, maybe they have no problem with you yet, and they’re just preparing a case for the future. Some places are optimistic like that.)


3. Stay Under the Radar

This is the master key of maintaining your employment. Many people lack one or both of the previous virtues, but still keep their job for 10 years because they’ve got this one down pat.

If you’re hired today, and starting tomorrow nobody ever hears your name again, then your job is safe. Your name has to cross someone’s desk before they can tie you a noose. So if you’re ever going to screw up, just make sure that it’s never in a way that draws attention.

EMS is rife with uniformed men and women who show up, clock in, work their hours, and go home. They may be interesting people or boring ones, smart or dumb, up-and-coming or cheerfully stagnant. They may be loved or hated by their coworkers. They may even give bad care, write bad documentation, and draw ire in every ED they enter. But so long as it’s never the kind of thing to make anybody complain to the supervisors, then they’ll do just fine.

On the flip side, they might be a Super EMT, aces in every category, but if their name and face are constantly attracting the eye of the bosses, then they’re at best one or two steps from seeking new employment. Because being a bother is not a good virtue if you’re not valuable.

Truth be told, if you’re wise, then you’ll probably stay off the radar even for the most harmless reasons. No attention is good attention, not even asking to change a shift or replace a shirt, and while some of that is obviously necessary it should certainly be minimized. It’s a fine, fine art you’ve mastered when you’re hired as a new medic, and five years later nobody upstairs knows you beyond a vague sense that might work there.


There you have it. The big three.

You will notice that nowhere in the above list do I include clinical competence. For a long time, I believed that if you were a good EMT, that was enough to keep you safe — and if you were an exceptional EMT, that would even make up for a few things. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Possibly in a few cases, such as if you assist with training and continuing education, your knowledge and skills can be a feather in your cap. But as a rule, nobody in charge knows or cares about how good you are. You’re just one of the many EMT-Bs or EMT-Ps from the big group of identical licenses on the payroll. So if you think that being the fastest intubator in the West will protect you from violations of the Big Three, then you are sadly mistaken.

Indeed, this is yet another reason (you know, beyond the basic moral ones) to treat your patients and facility staff with respect and compassion. By and large, they don’t know if you’re any good at medicine — the patient in particular — but they know if you were a dickhead, and dickheads are the people they call and complain about. You can nearly kill someone, but if you smile, hand them a warmed blanket, and shake their hand, they’ll go away thinking you were the nicest young man they ever met. For all the great ideas on kindness and empathy in our favorite EMS book, Thom Dick’s People Care, it’s worth noting that its subtitle is not “How to Get into Heaven,” but “Career-friendly Practices for Professional Caregivers.” Career-friendly indeed.

It may sound like I’ve become a terrible cynic, but in truth, I think I’ve just come to understand the basic realities of the field we work in. We may wish the world were different, but we may also wish for a pet unicorn and world peace; things are the way they are, and the truth is that you should be able to maintain a long and successful career, providing the most outstanding care you can offer, if you simply learn how to stay employable.