Fixation Errors: Blame Aunt Jemima.


“Tell them we are really sorry and we are going to change our policy, okay?” I say to the RN on the phone. We are now going to have a strict hand washing policy when this sort of thing happens.

Perhaps in the near future, the title of this blog may change to “Mistakes that I made that you should read about so you do not make the same mistakes as I did.”
Continue reading “Fixation Errors: Blame Aunt Jemima.”



Should EMS have a degree requirement?*

I don’t know. Neither does anyone else.

I want EMS to have a degree requirement because it should cull the herd a bit, raise the bar and lower the supply of workers ready to do it for next to nothing. This should translate into more money for those that stay in the field, “should” being the key word in this sentence.  A degree will allegedly give us a seat at some metaphorical healthcare table and might change the perception of EMS from being ambulance drivers to some sort of legitimate healthcare providers, perhaps even allowing us to be in charge of our own destiny as an industry (profession?).

A degree is likely a surrogate end point for keeping out the lowest common denominator that is attracted to EMS. Our low barriers to entry coupled with the ability for someone to get a bit of authority, respect and be occasionally viewed as a hero by joining EMS might be an issue.

I have a BA in an unrelated field and honestly, I do not think it helped me learn how to think well or do that much intellectually. What I do think a degree represents is a certain willingness to do more and try to become more educated. A degree may be a surrogate endpoint for a certain type of personality that we should look to attract to our field. A degree might be a rule in, but perhaps lack of one is not a rule out when hiring.

Then again when we look at the general state of college campuses today, at least what I see in the media, it seems open and free exchanges of ideas may be in danger of extinction.

The question regarding a degree needs to be this: will it make EMS better? Well, that depends, better for whom? It would probably make it better for me but should that be the focus of EMS? No. We need to make things better for the patients.

We need to make things better for patients, better for communities and better for healthcare.

Would a degree requirement make things better for patients? Would a degree make patient based outcomes better? Is a degree holding paramedic what is needed in the field by our patients? If a degree does not make tangible outcomes better would it make more intangible things like rapport, patient satisfaction, and public perceptions better? It seems like it should work. Then again there is a long list of things EMS has adopted in the past that seemed like they should work: MAST, therapeutic hypothermia, IV fluid therapy for hypovolemic shock from hemorrhage, backboards, etc.

Maybe we need to think more big-picture and less about us. Maybe wanting to feel like a real health care provider (and I do want to feel that way) should not factor into a needs assessment. Maybe we are trying to turn being a paramedic in to something it might not be? Maybe a paramedic or an EMT is a real clinician, I do not know. Then again, maybe being a pre-hospital clinician is what is needed by patients. Maybe patients need more than an entry level paramedic currently provides. It is hard to say as there in nothing but opinion and speculation regarding this for now.

If we want to invoke a slippery slope argument here we could put a physician on every ambulance in America, but we need to deal with reality. For everything there is a cost to benefit ratio. While adding doctors to ambulances would almost certainly increase outcomes, I suspect the gains would be marginal when we compare cold hard facts with dollars.

What about communities that cannot afford this? While we can argue it is an essential service at some point in rural America there is a finite amount of cash and asking people to choose between an EMS program and some other services is a hard line. An EMS service might be essential but in many places a volunteer BLS ambulance with one EMT meets the criteria. Perhaps a ride to the hospital and some empathy is all that is really needed? Perhaps that is good enough for some areas, or that is the best that they can do.

Perhaps a ride to the hospital and some empathy is all that is really needed? Perhaps that is good enough for some areas, or that is the best that they can do. I like to think we can do better, but it is not up to me.

Until someone has the guts to make a degree requirement in a USA based EMS service and compare outcomes, or do a RCT of some sort, all we have is speculation, opinions, extrapolations, and hunches. Yes, I am aware of the data in other fields like nursing that show some increases in outcomes but those do not necessarily equate to outcomes EMS would use.

On the other hand, the worst case scenario would be a degree requirement with no increase in outcomes and no increase in pay.

While I think a more education is a good thing I also believe the “leaders” of EMS that are calling for this may be unable to see the forest for the trees. Rather than add what I believe to be marginal gains by producing a workforce of well-rounded paramedics, perhaps we should start with a complete overhaul the current EMS education program. If we want to make an EMS specific degree program that adds to our current standards, then I am all for it. But I do not believe that is what many are advocating for.

I would rather have better, more proficient paramedics than a more “well-rounded” paramedic when it comes down to it.

Adding in several hundred medically specific hours to the existing paramedic curriculum seems like what is needed much more than adding in English and math classes at this point.  The benefits gained from a semester of “managing the intubated patient” would far outweigh the benefits of a semester of statistics. Throwing in a 4 credit semester of internship in an ICU of “managing the critically ill patient field internship” would likely bring a larger gain than a semester of studying European literature.

I am in no way anti-education and I believe that a degree requirement is a great idea for anyone looking to embark in EMS management and perhaps it should be the standard. I believe that having an understanding of writing, statistics, scientific methods and research all seem like important things to have a manager to be knowledgeable about.

*For the sake of clarity in this post, I am referring to street level providers here and not managerial/supervisory positions.


Supra-Glottic Airways Taste Like Failure.

In 2007 Elaine Bromiley went in to the hospital for an elective sinus surgery. Thirteen days later she died.  If you are unfamiliar with the case, there is a reenactment video of what happened in the OR here. Be forewarned, it is not an easy video to watch.

Recently we discussed the case at work. Providers expressed their disbelief over the events. “I don’t get it. How could that have happened?” was asked. Before doing quality assurance (QA) in EMS for several years I know I could tell you the answer, it is glaringly obvious to anyone with or without any medical knowledge – THEY ARE INCOMPETENT IDIOTS! For good measure I might also throw in some pseudo-intellectual comment about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. For the coup de grace I would add they should lose their license to practice medicine.

Doing QA is hard. Sure you can just read reports and dole out sanctions for protocol violations like some sort of EMS SVU. “In the EMS justice system, QA based offenses are considered especially heinous. In the agency, the dedicated QA officers who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” Chung-chung. It won’t make your system better or safer, but you can do it. It happens all the time.

To do QA right requires you to either have natural talents in things like emotional intelligence (I don’t) or to learn about yourself and come to some unpleasant realizations, things like you are wrong a lot. Even worse, after doing QA for some time you might come to find the root cause of some of the problems in the agency also involves you. The notion that second ago you were sure the providers were morons and now you are contemplating that you are perhaps a causative factor in the incident can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Growth is hard and to be honest not all that fun. It kind of sucks, actually.

Going back to the Elaine Bromiley case it is easy to be the judge, jury and executioner when we view the events that occurred with the benefit of hindsight.

The thing is if you were to present the scenario in the Bromiley case to anyone of the people that were there in there that day in the form of a question, “your patient is circling the drain, the 02 sats are in the shitter, should you keep trying to intubate?”I guarantee every single person would say “hell no!” But the truth is the people in the OR that day may never have even considered there were other choices. There probably was no choice presented in their minds. The only solution they could think of was “get the tube.” Or maybe they did have choice but the best solution from their perspective was to “get the tube.” Perhaps they though in another five seconds that tube would go through the cords and the disaster would be averted, certainly better to spend another five seconds in the airway than to cut the neck and scar this woman, right?


But they could not know that. Only with hindsight can we tell them that it would not be just another 5 seconds to get the tube. If we had the foresight to say you are never going to get the tube I assure you no one would still be mucking around in a person’s airway when their spo2 is south of 40%.

It is easy to watch the Bromiley video and believe your inner monologue, “IDIOTS.” It is harder to look at things from the provider’s perspective. It takes self-restraint to not jump to conclusion. It is very hard to look at things from their perspective and try and understand what they thought was going on then and why they made the choices they did that day. I think this is referred to as empathy.


From the outside perspective watching a fixation error unfold is a baffling ordeal, it boggles the mind how people could do what they are doing.

Fixation errors are very real. I made one once. After you experience one the world is different. You will be left with lingering doubts about your skill as a clinician. Are you a shit paramedic? How the hell did that happen in the first place? From the calm of your kitchen typing away on your computer it seems almost impossible to understand what occurred that day. You know the facts, you know what happened, but the why of it is much more elusive. Like some half remembered drunken evening you have bits and pieces of went on. What led you astray that night was not just one thing, and you know this. You know the holes of the Swiss cheese lined up just right to set the trap and you took the bait. Hook, line and sinker.

Given enough time, you can begin to understand exactly what did happen. Given enough time, you can be okay with a lot of things. You can begin to understand how others can get lulled down the same shitty path. There are few things in life as seductive as just taking one more “quick look” in your patient’s airway when you know at that moment that an ET tube is the solution to all your problems.

I think there is another component to the issue of fixation. Failure. There is a subtle sense of failure when you place a supra-glottic airway after you could not get the ET tube in, especially in a patient you paralyzed.  But you do it. You put that supra-glottic device in, because that is what is needed, that is what is right and correct and should happen, has to happen, but it still stings. It still feels like failure.

But the goal was never intubation, was it? The goal was managing the airway. Or was it? It seems when every cardiac arrest is tried by a jury of our peers the burning question is “did you get the tube?” or “Who got the tube?”

Of course, talking about this is probably going to be frowned upon be some. We are supposed to be bigger than this when it comes to ego and our own biases and patients.

On the other hand, preventable medical errors may be the third leading cause of death in the USA. Maybe it is time we start looking at some human related factors.

Let’s have the uncomfortable talk about how our cognitive biases, ego, and sense of pride might be playing in to killing a bunch of people. If you do not think this is a huge problem in EMS, I would refer you to the post about the ET tube petition. Right next to ET tubes on the NASEMSO document was a call for the removal of PEEP. Now, the thing is there is not a ton of evidence about EMS ET tubes, and what evidence there is paints the practice in a questionable light, but PEEP on the other hand seems to be pretty soundly based in science and evidence. Out of the save intubation crowd there was virtually no science or data or evidence given, only anecdote and an appeal to emotions.

Where was the petition to keep PEEP? There wasn’t one.

  • Number of people who signed the petition to keep intubation in the paramedic scope: 26,476.
  • Number of people who signed the petition to keep PEEP in the paramedic scope: What petition?

You can ask yourself why no one cared about the PEEP issue but I suspect you know the answer, you have known it all along. We, as an industry, have some weird emotional attachment to intubation; it has somehow become an integral part of our identity as a paramedic. This is not to say that intubation does not have a place in EMS, I think it does, but I think it might be time to start the conversation about why we are so god damned emotionally invested in intubation. Myself included.

How did our value as a paramedic come to rely on a 30cm piece of plastic tubing? How does self-worth hinge on shoe-horning a two dollar piece of plastic several inches in to a patient? I do not know.




Why I am Not Signing The Petition About Intubation.

So I do not have to post a lengthy comment every time the petition pops up on my feed.
If you have not seen it, here it is

Where do I begin? First, NASEMSO is not coming for our ET tubes. This was literally them publishing comments they received. The comment came from one person in an area where paramedics need additional training to be able to intubate. Agencies often solicit public comments when implementing policy change and when they do this some of comments are from people that should not comment on policies. The fact that 9000+ people could not be bothered to understand what was going on here or ask for further clarification speaks volumes about our industry.

Secondly, many people think EMS should in fact stop intubating. A petition is not going to change the minds of the shot callers. They look at things like evidence and training and standards and outcomes. A bunch of whiny rhetoric about the heroics we perform is not going to sway them in the least.

petitionThey deal in cold hard facts, not appeals to emotions. 

This petition just makes us look silly. “Allow Paramedics to continue to save lives with endotracheal intubation!” is a real stretch to say the least. While I think an ET tube is the gold standard, I do not see much in the way of life and death between it and a supra-glottic airway. Ventilation matters, not our ego.

The petition states the reason why ET tubes are on the chopping block is because we receive less training than anesthesiologists. That is wild speculation and, I don’t even know where that came from. If you are a paramedic and are not sure why people are considering that maybe we should not be intubating I would like to introduce you to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The petition should be calling for intubation education reform. Want to “Save The Tubes?” Then start writing NASEMSO about how we need more education on things like apneic oxygenation, peri-arrest intubation, ARDS, PEEP, etc. Show the people that write the educational guidelines that we want to be safe and educated and trained well and competent. Show them that we can demonstrate humility and are capable of using critical thinking and accepting feedback. Or keep getting mad over a non-issue and saying what heroes we are. 

When Only Outlaws will Intubate…

Get on the band wagon!!! The NASEMSO is coming for your laryngoscopes and ET tubes!

If you are on social media and in EMS you have no doubt seen the posts today. They are coming for your tubes. Soon intubating will be outlawed and only outlaws will intubate. And it is out fault because we suck at intubating, or we haven’t trained enough, perhaps our QA programs have failed, and our education is inadequate. We are getting what we deserve.

Except that is either nonsense or speculation, or some of both at this point.

First, states can do whatever they want and the national scope of practice is not a law, it is not binding and to be honest, whatever, you should have gotten your critical care cert by now. If you want to complain about EMS education and training and have not done it yet, well…let’s just say that if you complain that we aren’t taken seriously but haven’t taken a board certification exam that you could have…get off your ass. Or don’t. I don’t know. Do whatever you want.

The part about removing intubation is under the “comments received for exclusion of practice” section…right next to the comment about removing PEEP. I am not respiratory guru but I think some of the ARDS patients I transfer are going to be unhappy with removing PEEP.  Does anyone think NASEMSO is going to remove PEEP? I do not think so. This may be the EMS equivalent of Yahoo Answers or it could be the real deal. I made a comment on the 2015 AHA/ILCOR guidelines asking them to remove epi from adult cardiac arrests and it is still in the algorithm. When organizations intend to change policy they solicit comments from the public. Not everyone in the public, how do I put this…think of how bright the average person out there is, now realize 49% of people are not as bright as them, but they do have internet access. Or risk losing all your faith in the human race and get on Yahoo Answers or read the comments below a YouTube video.

Who made these comments about removing intubation? No one knows? What is going to happen with the comments? Also unknown.

Which brings me to the bigger issue here; everyone is jumping to conclusions about this. We don’t know who said it and we do not know why they said it. Could it be that EMS is bad at intubating? It is certainly possible. But there are tons of other reasons as well that could exist. Perhaps it is a lack of evidence that ET tubes actually change many outcomes? It certainly seems problematic that one comment has caused mass condemnation in EMS.

Maybe it is time to think about ET intubation is simply a risky procedure and unless you are dropping 40+ tubes a year it is extremely dangerous. Perhaps the risk is simply too great when presented with the logistical challenge of getting all the paramedics in the country 40 tubes per year. Perhaps we have been too cavalier with the whole thing and we need to own up to we simply were allowed to do an unsafe act and we need to rectify that? It does not mean we are failures.

No reason or logic was given for the comment, but that did not stop folks from piling on with comments about how EMS is a failure and doomed, and this is what we deserve, and that they are leaving EMS and other rhetoric. If an anonymous comment is all it takes to push you out of EMS, it might be time to question your commitment to it in the first place.

problem solving

Don’t get me wrong, I think intubation is a good skill to have and just like everyone else in EMS I am an above average intubator*.  I want to hang on to it because I think it is beneficial to some patients, but if I am putting patients at an unjustifyable risk, then I am okay with taking it away. There certainly is marked room for improvement in EMS education, QA and training. But before we know the facts here (if there are any at all because it may just be a nameless commentator) we should probably not condemn all of EMS. The sky is not falling; you do not need to start stock piling high capacity bougies and semi-automatic capnography monitors.

Perhaps this is the time to show that we are professionals, ask for more information, take feedback well and improve where needed.  Blaming does not fix errors.

* Dunning-Kruger