What we can learn about documentation and duty from Michael Jackson

Paramedic Richard Senneff knew he would eventually be in court as soon as he recognized his cardiac arrest patient was the ‘King of Pop’


This article was originally posted June 8, 2015. It has been updated.

Recently I had the privilege of spending time with LAFD paramedic Richard Senneff. If you don’t know the name, you know the call. Senneff was one of the paramedics that responded to Michael Jackson’s cardiac arrest.  

You can bet that I pressed him for the inside scoop. I asked about all kinds of inside details; things that nobody else knows. I even offered him attorney/client privilege so that he could tell me the deepest, darkest and most confidential aspects. With my personal assurances that I would never tell a soul, I asked whether he could confirm or deny any of the rumors that had floated about after Jackson’s death.

Michael Jackson's death a reminder to treat every 911 call, every patient like a celebrity when it comes to ePCR documentation. (AP photo)
Michael Jackson's death a reminder to treat every 911 call, every patient like a celebrity when it comes to ePCR documentation. (AP photo)

Much to his credit, Senneff refused to discuss anything that was not already public knowledge; no secrets, no details, no violations of patient confidentiality – nothing that wasn’t discussed in any of the hearings or trials at which he testified. He is, for sure, a consummate professional.  

After registering my disappointment at not getting any juicy details, I transitioned my questions from inquisitive fan to EMS educator, and he did not disappoint.  

Duty to the patient in EMS documentation

As Senneff said in his testimony, neither he nor his partner knew who the patient was until they were performing the assessment,  and, even then, they did not lose sight of the fact that – most-famous-person-in-the-world notwithstanding – this was still a patient first. As a paramedic myself, that sent a jolt of pride through my bones. As an attorney who defends paramedics, I felt a great sense of relief that the understanding of duty was not supplanted by the degree of celebrity.

Senneff did say that when they realized who the patient was, every provider on the call knew everything they did – or didn’t do – would be meticulously scrutinized. That reality did not change how they treated the patient; pulseless and apneic is pulseless and apneic.

The looming worldwide attention did however, motivate them to make sure the documentation was flawless. He knew he would be testifying somewhere, sometime and he knew that his documentation would not only be projected on a giant screen, but it would be the most reliable source of information necessary to refresh his own recollection for what was sure to be intense cross examination by someone.

He explained that he crafted his documentation to be clear and detailed, relevant and descriptive, and most of all objective and accurate. I nodded my approval inasmuch as I have been trying to teach those concepts for years.

Every 911 call is just as important

Then he hit me with a most profound and telling point. He explained that it is his belief that that every call should be documented with the same attention to accuracy and clarity, because every call is just as important and any call can end up in court.

Eureka! This guy gets it!

For years, I have been counseling EMS providers to understand the almost immeasurable importance of solid, accurate and complete documentation, and I finally have a first-hand account that puts a very famous face on the issue.

While every aspect of the Michael Jackson call garnered worldwide attention, from the perspective of paramedic, namely, one who was there, it was no more or less important than any other call. As far as treatment and documentation are concerned, every call is the Michael Jackson call.

Two valuable lessons from the Michael Jackson 911 call

One, if you treat every patient and every call with the same degree of importance and attention to duty, then your patients will consistently receive the best available care. Everybody wins.

Two, as an EMS defense attorney, I can say that if you document every patient and every call with the same degree of importance and attention to detail, then you will enjoy the best possible protection from actions against your license. Everybody wins.

Unlike the general public, the law does not care who the patient is. The law cares about how the patient is assessed and treated, and how that assessment and treatment are documented.

In a most professional and humble way, Senneff seems to exemplify the best of what EMS is supposed to be; quality patient care for all the people.

What does your care exemplify?

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