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Importance of Communication in Paramedic and EMT Teams

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When a life is on the line, communication is paramount.

This is a seemingly straightforward concept, but it has distinct meanings at various levels of an emergency.

For one, a first responder must be effective enough as a communicator to function in a variety of pressure-packed roles on a team of emergency medical technicians (EMTs). There can be no mistaking symptoms, misdiagnosing injuries or any other procedural missteps that might cause hesitation among members of the unit.

Communication in an emergency context also refers to a first responder’s direct interactions with the person or persons in need of medical care. Paramedics and EMTs must establish an immediate rapport and begin extracting information, exuding a calm demeanor and, if necessary, stifling their own emotions to put the patient at ease.

And the last – and perhaps most important – layer of communication involves a first responder’s ability to provide an accurate assessment of the patient’s condition and the events that precipitated it prior to handing them off to awaiting on-site emergency personnel.

Clear and concise communication in paramedic and EMT teams can be the difference between life and death. But that’s hardly a revelation for those who remain passionate about such a selfless profession in the face of chaos.

And by sharpening their expertise in all facets of an emergency, fledgling paramedics can play a role in rectifying a disturbing trend: the scores of preventable and undocumented deaths that occur every year due to poor communication in paramedic or EMT teams either at the emergency scene or in the ensuing exchange with hospital staff.

Verbal communication skills and body language – the nonverbal cues that could comfort a person in distress – are just one side of the equation for EMTs. They are also responsible for writing reports that inform the split-second decisions of doctors and nurses who may be responsible for performing life-saving surgery. Omitting information can have fatal repercussions.

A 2016 study published in the BMJ found that medical error was the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. However, there hasn’t been a widespread outcry to match such an assertion. Marty Makary (M.D.), a health policy expert at Johns Hopkins University who co-authored the research paper, revealed in a corresponding interview that data on the topic is hard to come by because death certificates are not accurately filled out.

Instead, members of the healthcare community quietly circulate news of these tragedies, preventing the devastating details from ever reaching the public consciousness.

“The problem of people dying from medical care gone wrong has been vastly underappreciated and not even recognized in this process by which we record and tally our statistics,” Makary said. “These are issues that live in locker rooms and doctor’s lounges and nursing stations, where people talk about stories, examples that they’ve witnessed or know of. They live in the form of stories, not in epidemiological numbers.”

Per Makary’s research, these fatal mistakes are typically categorized as follows: an unintended act or one that does not produce the desired outcome; an error of execution (meaning the right course of treatment may have been chosen but not completed correctly); an error of planning (the wrong plan of care was chosen); or an error of deviation, in which the patient may be harmed when a practitioner strays from the correct steps in a plan of care.

A year after Makary’s research was published, a study by the National Library of Medicine verified that incomplete documentation by paramedics persisted in cases of critically injured patients, suggesting more intensive training is needed to improve communication in paramedic and EMT teams. Of the 90 patient handoffs that were studied, only 31 percent yielded “an overall assessment of the patient’s clinical status” while 47 percent produced “pertinent physical exam findings.”

EMTs provided “a complete set of vital signs” in just 57 percent of the exchanges that were evaluated, and EMTs described the scene of the emergency in 58 percent.

Of course, paramedics remain an indispensable resource on the front lines of crises big and small. Their personal sacrifices are immense, and their performance under pressure is unmatched. They work marathon shifts and endure countless physical hardships, to say nothing of the hazardous conditions and unique challenges that emerged amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across the country, EMTs and their fellow first responders were stricken with COVID-19 in staggering numbers. But studies suggest it was paramedics specifically who were succumbing to the virus more frequently, per a report on New York City emergency personnel from The Journal of Emergency Medical Services.

The New York Times spared no details in its stunning account of a 12-hour EMT shift in northern New Jersey when the outbreak was perhaps at its most intense in April 2020. The article laid bare the physical and mental rigors of the job and the adaptability on display from various first responders who were learning how to perform their duties while heavily outfitted in personal protective equipment.

And there were indeed instances of compromised communication, such as the scene in which a fire chief’s muffled instructions appeared to be misunderstood by an unmasked man displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

Nevertheless, the fire chief stood at a safe distance and assessed the man’s condition, concluding quickly and decisively that he was not in immediate danger. In this case, the would-be patient risked more harm if placed in the care of a hectic nearby hospital where beds were already scarce.

That same month, The Washington Post reported on another team of New Jersey-based EMT workers who lost two from their ranks to COVID-19 and soldiered ahead.

“While most Americans shelter at home,” Post reporter Ariana Eunjung Cha writes, “emergency medical technicians (EMTs) — who operate the nation’s ambulances — go toward the danger.”

Therein lies the essence of a career in emergency medical care. The job evolves; it does not take breaks. An online bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree in emergency medical services administration from Eastern Oregon University can equip paramedics with the necessary communication skills to save lives and prevent future tragedies.

The online emergency medical services administration (EMSA) degree program at Eastern Oregon University enables applicants to master these crucial communication skills and take the next step in their careers as paramedics. The university’s expert faculty guides students through an innovative and engaging curriculum designed to provide foundational knowledge in the field.

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