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Beyond EMS Week: Advocating your profession all year

Rather than confining our advocacy to the third week of May, we need to be stewards of our profession for the other 51 weeks a year


Photo Holly Johnson - Northwest Herald
Firefighter Paramedic Kristy Hopkins sits in the back of an Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Fire Department emergency medical service truck at the Algonquin Lake in the Hills Fire Protection District.

In 1974, President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation designating the third week in May as National Emergency Medical Services Week, to honor a fledgling profession struggling to carve out a niche in our nation’s healthcare delivery system.

We’ve grown up a lot since then, a unique hybrid of public safety and public health far broader and deeper than the trauma care technicians envisioned in the 1966 EMS White Paper, “Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society.” We have become the safety net of the entire health care system; a role for which, as public safety providers, we are ill-suited, and as public health providers, we are poorly trained.

That professional identity crisis is simultaneously what holds EMS back and what attracts talented young people to our profession. Like Forrest Gump’s “bawx o’ chawklits,” in EMS you never really know what you’re gonna git.

That variety of experiences is a powerful draw for the Type A, action-oriented personalities that dominate our profession. It is also, unfortunately, a symptom of the poorly-defined role of EMS. Everything about our practice is a patchwork of imperfect solutions to problems both real and imagined.

For the next seven days, in keeping with the theme set by ACEP for EMS Week 2011, we will celebrate the “Everyday Heroes” of EMS, those selfless men and women who dedicate their lives to the medical care of the sick and injured in our society; care rendered outside the safe confines of a hospital, at all hours of the night, in all weathers.

We’ll promote public awareness of EMS among the citizens we serve. When the week is over, we’ll go back to toiling in obscurity, and we’ll tell ourselves that we did our part, that we showed the flag during the week when it counted.

And we’ll take perverse pride in being ignored. If you doubt me, look at any EMS forum when someone bemoans the poor pay and public ignorance of EMS issues. Every comment will be met with dozens of replies, all a variation on, “If you got into EMS for the pay and the recognition, you’re in the wrong profession.”

I’m here to tell you we’ve got it backwards.

Events like “EMS On The Hill” are high-profile ways of increasing public awareness of EMS, but let’s not kid ourselves that the legislators we’re lobbying view the event as anything other than a handy photo opportunity.

When the cameras were turned off and those 145 EMS administrators and providers took off their dress uniforms and returned to their jobs, we were once again relegated to an afterthought in the minds of policy makers. When EMS Week ends, we’ll be an afterthought to the general public as well.

Focus your advocacy
Rather than confining our advocacy to the third week of May, we need to be stewards of our profession for the other 51 weeks a year.

Take an active role in your state and national EMS organizations, but understand that membership in NAEMT doesn’t abdicate your responsibility to be an ambassador for all EMS providers.

Passionately defend your turf against encroachment by other healthcare professions, like nursing. But also understand that we have mutual concerns, and the state of our healthcare system ultimately affects us both. When the concerns of the nursing lobby dovetail with our own, actively lend them your support. Our relationship should be symbiotic, not adversarial.

Educate yourself on the financial aspects of EMS delivery, because ultimately healthcare reform is not about access and quality of care. It’s about how to pay for it. Knowing the issues makes you a better advocate for EMS’s piece of the pie.

Condemn misconduct or incompetence in our midst, and do it publicly. One of the hallmarks of a true profession is the willingness to police its own ranks. But also be careful not to rush to judgment, and close ranks around our colleagues when they are scapegoats for the failures of others.

Educate our colleagues about the capabilities of EMS, and the best way to do that is by being, well… capable. Don’t demand respect, earn it. If you’ve done that, and they still insist on calling you an ambulance driver, be the bigger man (or woman) and let it pass without comment. Arguing with jerks only gives them the power to make us look like jerks ourselves.

In short, live the tenets of your professional ethos. Be advocates for your patients and your profession for 51 weeks a year. If you do that, you’ll do more to advance EMS than a hundred photo opportunities with your Senator or a thousand free blood pressure checks, and we can all spend the third week of May on some tropical island beach for a little well-deserved rest and relaxation.

I’ll take my margarita on the rocks, not frozen, please. columnist Kelly Grayson, is a paramedic ER tech in Louisiana. He has spent the past 14 years as a field paramedic, critical care transport paramedic, field supervisor and educator. Kelly is the author of the book Life, Death and Everything In Between, and the popular blog A Day in the Life of An Ambulance Driver.
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