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A Swiss Army knife on wheels: The benefits of modularity in EMS

As EMS agencies move toward multi-function devices, they are poised to save more than equipment costs. Here are 5 benefits that may surprise you.


Sponsored by Philips

By Laura Neitzel, EMS1 BrandFocus Staff

As a Camp Fire Girl, I learned at a young age to always carry a Swiss Army knife. I can’t tell you how many times the knife, scissors, can opener, screwdriver, saw and even the corkscrew have come in handy.

Smaller equipment, universal design and reduced wear and tear on equipment and EMS crews are some of the benefits of modularity. (image/Getty)
Smaller equipment, universal design and reduced wear and tear on equipment and EMS crews are some of the benefits of modularity. (image/Getty)

Even today I love the feeling of being ready for (almost) anything should I ever get lost in the woods with a bottle of pinot noir. But if I had to carry each item separately, I would never do it. Having all these tools in a compact device that weighs under 4 ounces makes all the difference.

Modularity is also where the future of medical technology lies. It involves not just smaller, lighter, multi-function devices but also smart, modular design that allows you to add and remove devices as needed for the call versus always carrying everything.

Here are five benefits that modularity will bring to emergency medical services:

1. Reduced wear and tear

Paramedics and EMTs go wherever the calls take them. Up multiple flights of stairs, in tight spaces, over rugged terrain – you name it and you’ve probably been there. At the start of your shift, it may seem like no big deal to lug heavy gear and equipment, but by the 10th call in a day, the size and weight of your go-bag can wear you down, putting you at greater risk for injury.

Modularity can both reduce the weight of individual pieces of essential equipment and allow EMS crews to shift the weight from one big, heavy bag to several that are easier to carry.

“When you have everything just bundled together, there's only one way to carry it, and it's always 25 pounds or so at the end of your arm,” said Matt Penzone, a senior marketing manager at Philips, one of the world’s largest healthcare technology firms. “But if that 25-pound monitor/defibrillator you always carry by hand becomes one 7-pound vital signs monitor, with an under-5-pound defibrillator tucked away separately in a first-in bag if needed for a cardiac call, that might be a better option.”

Plus, when EMS agencies use a unit that combines a monitor and a defibrillator, they have no choice but to turn on the defibrillator 10 times a day, 15 times a day, whether there's a cardiac call or not, says Penzone. That's unnecessary wear and tear on the device.

2. Cost savings through flexible deployment

Another benefit that smaller, modular devices can provide is the ability to be flexible about what resources are deployed where. So rather than having to equip every ambulance with a bulky, expensive manual defibrillator, for instance, an agency could equip just the ALS units with full defibrillators. BLS units could be equipped with a less expensive monitor and AED, saving costs while still maintaining the monitoring and communication capabilities needed.

Because effective modular systems typically require and utilize modern technology

By the nature of their design, modular systems also tend to utilize more advanced communications technology and open up the possibility of remote device management and clinical oversight. The costs of inefficient care and transport as well as the time-consuming process of updating an entire fleet of equipment can add up. So for some agencies, the ability to remotely oversee less experienced clinicians and manage equipment could represent significant savings.

3. Easier upgrades through universal design

Another cost-saving benefit is that modular products are often designed to be less hardware-specific and more adaptable, such as MOLLE compatible bags and response vehicles, which build on common platforms to best suit the needs of the end-user.

These modular units are built on a flexible platform so that additional devices like an ultrasound or visual laryngoscope can be connected directly to the vital signs monitor via a universal connector type like USB or wirelessly via Bluetooth. Agencies can easily upgrade their system when needs or budgets allow versus having to purchase a new system just to upgrade or add a new function.

4. Multiple units for simultaneous assessment

The nature of having a modular, multi-piece system enables EMS crews to potentially treat two patients at the same time. For example, a modular system could allow for monitoring of ECG on two patients simultaneously. This ability can prove lifesaving in scenarios like car accidents in which EMTs need to check vital signs on multiple crash victims.

Another common scenario, says Penzone, is when an elderly person is being treated for a cardiac or respiratory issue and their spouse begins to feel lightheaded as well. Instead of having to disconnect from the first patient, EMS can do an electrocardiogram on the spouse using a second device, potentially averting a time-sensitive crisis.

The lower cost of individual components also means an agency may be able to afford to purchase backups for the most-commonly used items to carry multiples with the same crew or for MCI preparation.

5. Potential revenue streams

As the Emergency Triage, Treat and Transport (ET3) Model for payment moves closer to reality, new revenue streams will become available for ambulance crews to provide treatment in place for non-emergency, non-acute patients. In lieu of a post-surgical patient needing to return to the hospital for vitals or an ultrasound, for instance, ambulance crews can provide routine diagnostic services at the patient’s place of residence – and charge for it.

Having smaller, separate devices for this purpose will make it easier for EMS providers to deliver these diagnostic services and itemize them appropriately for reimbursement.

Each year our personal devices become smaller, add new functions and communicate with each other without our intervention. It’s hard to foresee a future where medical devices and equipment don’t do the same. As EMS agencies plan for that future, they should look to invest in medical devices of mobile, modular and universal design that will make it easier and more affordable to deliver patient care while reducing wear and tear on their equipment and their crews.

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