Why a degree is a must for today's paramedic

In his article last month, Dr. Ross postulates that today's paramedic would not benefit from the awarding of a degree. While I applaud Dave for publicly explaining his position, I must respectfully yet assertively present an opposing view.

Mind you, I have no solid science behind my opinion, no EMS studies that show how college studies can improve either the outcomes of patients or the position of paramedic. Yet examples abound in other professions, both in public safety and health care, that require a closer look.

To begin, let's look at the reality of paramedic education today. I believe that most nationally accredited paramedic programs range from 1,100 to 1,500 hours in length.

Add another 100 to 150 hours of EMT training required to qualify for paramedic school. In addition, programs such as the one I serve as faculty require an anatomy and physiology course, and a basic arrhythmia course.

All told, by the time a student graduates from a paramedic program, he or she may have earned 35 to 44 semester credits over two years.

To achieve an Associate's Degree requires approximately 62 to 66 credits of study. Today's paramedic, graduating from an accredited training program, is more than two thirds the way to a degree.In another words, we are already putting in the effort. Why are we denying ourselves of the recognition we have earned through our education?

The remaining credits are the so-called "general education" courses — English, Math, a couple of electives. Some would suggest that these courses are a waste of time.

Perhaps. Yet, those subjects relate directly to what we do as practitioners; writing narratives on patient care reports, scaling drug dosages based on weight or preparing budgets or comparing costs of materials used daily in EMS.

All I have to do is look at the students who struggle with these basic skills while in paramedic school; the level of frustration these students experience is directly correlated to the lack of study and preparation to perform them.

Summary point #1: Paramedics already complete a large portion of an Associate's Degree during their studies. The remaining coursework would strengthen their abilities while at work.

What else does college bring? In his article, Dr. Ross begins by relating his experience during a recent podcast on EMS Garage, in which degrees in EMS were explored and debated.

I was also on that podcast, along with several other individuals who had no trouble contributing to the discussion (translation: we ranted and raved at, and with each other). 

Indeed, these "insightful arguments" were made by — you guessed it — individuals who have gone to college and earned a degree. Does college make you smarter? I'm not saying that. But does college make you think critically? Absolutely.

College courses push you to think, to debate, to argue, to reason. You don't have to take a philosophy course to learn those traits, but the opportunity to explore ideas and concepts are much more likely in college than in high school.

College brings the ability to promote. That's hard to imagine when you're a young gun, impatiently waiting to save the world, one patient at a time. I've been there, and I've done that. Many of us have.

When the time came when I wanted to begin my career climb, I silently thanked my lucky stars that my Dad urged me to stay in college and complete my degree before going to work. The degree opened doors in my career path; what I learned in college made it easier for me to promote.

College degrees bring the ability to lateralize. Another colleague, Nick Nudell, pointed out quite clearly that there are many careers beyond "the streets" that are just as fulfilling – and require degrees.

Bio tech, pharmaceuticals, apparatus support; many of our best and brightest move into industries that support and expand the mission of EMS.
If you get to the point where you are ready to move onto a different career path, a degree is the key that opens that door. I've seen too many paramedics languish in their careers because they felt that they were stuck.

Remember that most college graduates don't find work directly related to their degrees – and they don't have to. They find work because they are better prepared and better able to compete.

What else does college bring? Let's look toward our brethren in countries such as Canada, Australia and many others in Europe. The vast majority of EMS providers in these countries are college graduates, with their degrees in the study of prehospital medicine.

The autonomy and value of their work is accepted by their health care and public safety colleagues. They look at their jobs as careers, not stepping stones. The level of study and preparation for the job is validated by the degree that is conferred.

Finally, let's address the REAL question – the monetary value of a degree in EMS. The chicken-and-egg argument has been around at least as long as I have been in the industry. I'll point to various allied health professions, many of which have evolved since after the birth of modern EMS.

Examples include respiratory therapy, occupational therapy, radiation therapist, and others.

A quick search on Salary.com shows that the median salary for a physical therapist is $75,000. A registered respiratory therapist earns $58,000.  Radiation therapists, $71,000.

Common thread? The majority of these providers graduate with college degrees in their discipline. Heck, look at physicians and nurses — both professions have long histories, including periods where they were not recognized as professionals and not paid well at all.

Changes occurred when the disciplines formalized their training, created rigor in their curricula, and required college degrees to practice. Will it happen to EMS? Absolutely — if we give ourselves the opportunity to do so.

So, will the paramedic of today be required to earn a degree to practice during my remaining years in the profession? Probably not. This torch must be passed on to the next generation of providers who will have to lead this evolution of the profession.

And this, my friends, is the bottom line: If we don't evolve, we will perish. EMS will forever be the bastard stepchild that is regulated by others and not ourselves.

We'll continue to rail against the system and demand that we be recognized as a profession. That will not happen until we respect ourselves and move on beyond caveman era thinking.

But this is just my opinion. What do you think?

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