You remember your hospital clinical hours, right? Maybe you're doing them now. They never seem to end. Back in the dinosaur days of EMS when I was in paramedic class, the only place we did clinicals was in the ER, because the emergency room is the most like EMS, right? And back then, EMS wasn’t exactly taken very seriously. Appreciated, yes, maybe even commended, but seldom taken seriously. Most of our clinical time (two hundred forty hours!) was spent watching the nurses start IV’s and push drugs, watching the doctors intubate patients and helping fetch and carry things thither and yon. Few of the nurses trusted us enough to actually stick a patient with an IV. We only practiced intubation after the patient was pronounced dead. 12-lead EKG’s took the same place as Egyptian hieroglyphics in our curriculum. At best, we might inspire enough confidence in the staff to allow us to give a pill or rub some ointment on a rash.
Nowadays, the curriculum includes over four hundred hours of hospital clinicals spanning not just the emergency department, but the ICU, med-surg floors, labor & delivery and surgery. On the surface it seems like the ways to be bored have increased exponentially. And if you’re looking for something to do, you may find yourself in the same predicament we did back in my class, when the Tyrannosaur was the king of the earth, and go look for an empty patient room to nap in.
One thing is for certain, when you take your hospital clinicals you’ll be a newbie. A “lowly” EMT (actually, you’ll be worse- an EMT student!), so judged by the nurses and doctors on the floors who don’t know you from Adam. You may be able to run circles around any other EMT, but there’s no way you’re going to prove that to crotchety old Nurse Ratchet. And she won’t care if you did.
So is there any benefit to the spectrum of torture your instructors are putting you through? If you want to be an excellent EMT, there most certainly is!
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to stick an IV. The CRNA or anesthesiologist might let you intubate a real, live person. Good, you need that. But it’s no big deal. Why? Because you can teach a monkey to intubate or start IV’s. All that takes is training. As an excellent EMT, you need to seek out education. And the hospital environment provides you with multiple opportunities to do so. Training teaches you how do do stuff: “Is my scene safe? I put on universal precautions. How many patients do I have?" Blah blah blah. What to do on every scene you’ll ever have. What education does is teach you how to think critically about your scene, especially when your scene is one of those “what if...” situations that EMT class can’t prepare you for. A great deal of education can be gleaned in the hospital.
Let’s look at some examples. One thing you’ll have to do on every call is write a run report. “Nobody’s gonna read this thing besides a lawyer,” you say to yourself. On the contrary! Many, many times the very first thing a physician or nurse will do when initially encountering your patient is read your run report. Your run report stays in the patient’s chart until he or she is discharged. It is referred to nearly every time a new doctor or nurse has any interaction with your patient. Even if they’ve been in the hospital for months and you’ve long forgotten about the call, your words are still being read and taken into consideration. If you are doing clinicals, try to take note of how often EMS reports are read. Now imagine those are your words being read. Is the report clear? Is the mechanism of injury and pertinent history accurate? What did you do for the patient? Why or why not? And be assured, your spelling, grammar and penmanship are under keen scrutiny. It is those words that will make the difference as to whether we EMT's are to be taken seriously by the medical community!
Speaking of what you did or didn’t do for the patient, another valuable lesson you can learn from hospital clinicals is the concept of continuity of care. Though your responsibilities may end when you hand over the patient to the emergency department staff, the patient’s care does not. More importantly, what you did while the patient was in your care has repercussions long after you’ve gone home and forgotten about the call.
Did you intubate the patient? Once your patient is intubated, you’ve assumed responsibility for the airway & breathing - two of the cardinal aspects of the ABC's. By intubating them, you’ve effectively made them vent-dependent. Once the body realizes it doesn’t have to breathe, many times it doesn’t start again. In your hospital clinicals, take a look at the patients who are intubated, particularly by EMS. A week or two after you’ve patted yourself on the back for “getting that tube” while hanging upside down in an overturned car in a ditch at night, that patient may well be getting a tracheostomy. That sweet grandma with CHF might not ever be able to speak the words to thank you for “saving her life” because she’s dying of ventilator-acquired pneumonia. Are you SURE you absolutely NEED to intubate that patient? Is there anything you can try to prevent an intubation and subsequent vent-dependency? The chest decompression you performed, the perhaps-less-than-aseptic IV and the hypotension you induced by walking your patient to the ambulance also all create a huge change in the continuing course of care for the patient.
The drugs you push have effects beyond the ER doors, too. Educating yourself about them can make the difference between an EMT who can pass his test and an excellent EMT. If you’re in clinicals, take a look at how the course of care is altered by drugs the EMT’s gave. Did EMS max out the patient on Atropine? The care changes. When EMS pushed labetalol on the hypertensive crisis, did the patient’s asthma kick in and now they have to be intubated? Another detour in the path of care. That patient with eclampsia - why is the ER giving them levophed after EMS pushed the magnesium sulfate? All those drugs have side effects, some of them deleterious. What may make you seem like a hero at the moment may cause an unnecessarily extensive hospital stay for the patient, added expense for insurers or taxpayers and a negative outcome in general.
In the hospital, you’ll encounter equipment that you’ll believe you will never have to think about again. Wrong! Many patients are discharged to home care with a variety of medical devices. As was stated earlier, the emergency room is the most like EMS right? Well, that’s no longer the case. A huge part of EMS calls nowadays have to do with ongoing care. That’s right- home health. People call EMS when their home oxygen machine breaks or their premature infant’s feeding tube is clogged. Imagine going to the home of a chronically ill patient who’s receiving tube feedings. The feedings are still running to the PEG tube and you have to disconnect it to package them for transport. How do you disconnect it? How do you flush it? Use your hospital clinical time to find out. Some patients go home with a Wound-Vac device to remove exudate from a surgical wound or pressure ulcer. When and how should you disconnect it? How long can it safely remain off? What should you do if it is accidentally dislodged? Again, pay attention and ask questions in the hospital. Some patients have a PICC line (Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter). Can you use that for IV’s? How should you access it? If it starts coming out, what should you do? There is a cornucopia of devices that you may not feel you need to know about, but in reality you will have to deal with frequently. Quinton cathers, Foley catheters, suprapubic catheters, colostomies, home ventilators, home CPAP and BiPAP machines and tracheostomies are only a few of the things you have a golden opportunity to learn about while doing your hospital clinicals, and you will be glad you did when you encounter them on scenes.
You can take note of other things too. True, cleaning a patient isn't a priority in EMS. But try to assist the nurses to turn and bathe that 600-pounder in the ICU. Help them keep the combative head bleed still for a minute during the CAT scan. Feel the soreness in your muscles the next day. The nurses will acquire a newfound respect for you and you will appreciate what they do when they have to do it without your help.
Use your hospital time to really learn about patient care, not just the bare minimum of EMS training. Understanding that what we do in the back of the ambulance has a lasting effect on our patients’ outcomes will make the difference between you being an adequate EMT and an excellent EMT. Remember, any trained monkey can start an IV and memorize ACLS algorithms. Being an excellent, educated EMT is not only what makes you stand out, but is also what truly makes a difference. And making a difference is one of the reasons we all started in this field, isn’t it?