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Why a consistent identity matters for EMS

It's time for EMS providers to adopt the label by which the public already knows us: paramedics


This feature is part of the 2017 EMS Trend Report, which takes an in-depth look at EMS trends in the United States and sets a foundation for assessing how the EMS profession is changing. Be sure to share this trend report with other EMS leaders and discuss your thoughts on how EMS is changing in the comments. To read all of the articles included in the report, click here.

We name everything around us so we can categorize, organize and make sense of everything from inanimate objects to conceptual ideas to people. Identifying the person or thing in front of us provides a sense of familiarity.

Society uses common names to group similar objects together in order to simplify retention. Most of us don't look at a stretch of rocky beach and call it a "mixture of igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary stones." We simply call them rocks.

The same thing happens in health care. There are registered nurses, licensed practical or vocational nurses, clinical nurse specialists, critical care nurses, hospice nurses, nurse practitioners and so forth. None of this really matters to those outside the industry. A layperson who doesn't feel well simply wants a nurse who is compassionate and competent.

Somehow, EMS providers struggle to brand ourselves in the same way the community sees us. (Courtesy photo)
Somehow, EMS providers struggle to brand ourselves in the same way the community sees us. (Courtesy photo)

We group public safety providers as well. Does it matter who drives the fire engine or who rides shotgun? Or the name of the backseat riders? All of them are known as firefighters when they are operating on the scene. Law enforcement officers might be known as sheriffs’ deputies or police officers, but colloquially they are cops.

Call for common nomenclature

Somehow, EMS providers struggle to brand ourselves in the same way the community sees us. Most of my non-EMS friends call us "medics" or "paramedics." They don't really care about the differences between EMTs, AEMTS, EMT-IIs, paramedics or any of the other 37 labels we use across the United States to describe who we are.

A National EMS Management Association position paper, released in early May, calls for a standard nomenclature for EMS providers that the community can identify with easily. NEMSMA recommends the term "paramedicine" be used to describe the discipline and profession and "paramedic" be used to reference all individual providers.

The word "paramedic" has been in the American lexicon since the early 1970s and is used fairly universally across the North American continent. Canada has been actively promoting the brand name for quite some time now.

While this might seem trivial, a consistent name is significant. It allows the media to not stumble over what we are or what we do when reporting on incidents. It aligns what people think we do with media portrayals (which, as we know, doesn't often match real life, but that's an entirely different column).

Perhaps most importantly, a consistent name unifies our industry when we go before our local, state and federal legislators by reducing the need to explain every piece of minutia about our levels of training, certification and licensure.

Time to make the change

Honestly, what has held us back this long on such a simple change is our longstanding stubbornness to de-label ourselves. Frankly, I don't care if my partner is an EMT, advanced EMT or paramedic – we are a team, and we work together to provide compassionate, competent care and safe transportation of an injured or ill patient.

Indeed, the 2017 EMS Trend Report verifies this barrier – the majority of 2017 survey respondents did not agree on the best label to describe what we do. EMS? Mobile Intensive Health Care? Prehospital Care?

To the public eye, does it really matter? This is really an academic argument only.

We introduce ourselves to our patients by our names, not by our titles. I don't try to correct the patient calling us both medics. It simply doesn't matter.

Behind the scenes, the profession can – and should – continue to label specific levels of providers accurately for common internal recognition. The labels could be changed to reflect those levels, like Paramedic Level I, II, III, or primary care paramedic or advanced care paramedic.

But when we're operating on the stage – in front of the public, policymakers and the media – let's call ourselves what the rest of society calls us and stop trying to needlessly confuse them.

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