Research explores EMS providers' role in end-of-life calls

Interviews with NY EMTs and paramedics provides new insights into the complex, yet largely unknown juncture of emergency care and end-of-life care


BUFFALO, N.Y. — Researchers examine how EMTs and paramedics assess and manage the type of emergency calls that can determine whether a person’s end-of-life wishes are upheld. Because EMS providers are trained to save lives they sometimes enter situations where a dying patient’s end-of-life wishes contradict their training.

Until recently, the dynamics of that contradictory environment were a mystery. "One way to gain perspective on these crises was to interview the paramedics and EMTs involved in them," said Deborah Waldrop, a professor in the University at Buffalo School of Social Work.

The study resulting from interviews with EMTs and paramedics based in Western New York, working with Rural/Metro, and published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, is providing new insights into the complex, yet largely unknown juncture of emergency care and end-of-life care.

Deborah Waldrop
Deborah Waldrop

Waldrop, an expert in aging, end-of-life care and advance care planning, has interviewed hundreds of families through a 16-year collaboration with Hospice Buffalo, trying to better understand the psychosocial needs of patients and their families faced with a life-limiting diagnosis.

She repeatedly heard that people didn’t know what to expect watching someone die. Providing end-of-life care, in fact, is among the most stressful human experiences. Emergency calls are often a way of coping with that stress, especially when a patient’s symptoms change suddenly for the worse.

More training needed

"We are not born into this life knowing how to die or knowing how to care for someone who is dying," Waldrop said.

First responders are not trained in end-of-life care, yet Waldrop says they do a lot more end-of-life care than anyone gives them credit for. "They have to, They’re usually the first medical personnel on scene," Waldrop said.

Paramedics and EMTs expressed the need for more training in end-of-life care, but even in the absence of that training, first-responders have developed ways of managing these situations.

If a person is actively dying, that might include coaching the family through the process, clarifying what’s happening. "They fill the void for families looking for help, looking for knowledge about what’s happening and what to do," Waldrop said.

Conflict is common

If there are no medical orders or they can’t be found first-responders are professionally bound to begin life-saving interventions and transport to a hospital even if family members say otherwise.

"It’s why the end-of-life conversation needs to happen at the time of a life-limiting diagnosis or when something changes on the trajectory of that illness and why those documents have to be in a prominent place," Waldrop said. "In the heat of the moment, families don’t want to be shuffling through files.”

Role of emergency responders

All these things need to be in place well in advance of the emergency call to prevent unwanted actions and unnecessary treatments. End of life calls are low frequency, but high intensity. Events happen quickly. First responders assess the patient, family and environment, identifying relationships to establish who might be serving in a decision-making capacity. The emotional intensity of the environment also raises safety concerns.

"The death of a loved one can bring out the worst in people," Waldrop said. "Emergency personnel have to be mindful of the scene."

Waldrop says there is so much that can be done, and the pre-hospital providers’ role in end-of-life care should be further explored to increase their ability to uphold end-of-life wishes while providing emotional support to families.

Waldrop offers the following tips for patients and families facing end-of-life decisions:

  • Following the diagnosis of a life-changing illness, initiate conversations about the person’s goals of care and wishes for life-sustaining treatment.
  • Ask health care providers about what to expect over the course of a chronic, life-limiting illness. Information is key to making choices and upholding a person’s wishes.
  • Revisit the person’s wishes periodically and when the situation changes, such as after a symptom crisis or hospitalization.
  • Discuss wishes for resuscitation (or not) with all caregivers who are involved.
  • Assure that all family members (those who are caregiving and those who are at a distance) are aware of the ill person’s wishes.
  • Place copies of a Non Hospital Do Not Resuscitate Order or Medical Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (MOLST) in a prominent location such as on the refrigerator.

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