The NHTSA Office of EMS released a significant document last year called the EMS Agenda 2050 that was carefully crafted to set a bold vision for the next 30 years of paramedicine by clearly differentiating the focus of care from its original definition in the 1996 EMS Agenda for the Future. Now, after just a few months of a COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen these modern precepts being challenged. As with any such vision of the future, a bit more perspective then just the immediate quarter is required. Before stepping toward the future, it is important to know exactly where we are today. To provide that update, NASEMSO released a new National EMS Assessment this past April to provide a measure of emergency medical response personnel and their agencies in this pivotal year of 2020. Although the latest survey is only updating the original work of a decade ago, there have been such dramatic changes that direct comparisons, even over this relatively short time frame, are difficult. To help bridge that gap for comparison, the folks over at ZOLL did a quick blog to reflect on the evolution of the EMS industry since 2011. Still for many, a little more context on how we got this far may be helpful before we can truly understand the significance of these most recent discussions regarding the future of EMS.
It was only back in 1960, that President John F. Kennedy made the statement that “traffic accidents constitute one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, of the nation’s public health problems.” The automobile was well entrenched in the new American dream by this point as ribbons of smooth highway were unrolling across the country that facilitated speeds of travel much greater than the safety aspects of the car would afford. Yet it wasn’t until 1966 that the National Academy of Sciences ‘white paper,’ officially titled “Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society,” that ambulances began to transform from a side business at funeral homes into our modern Emergency Medical Systems of today. This initial milestone report, delivered during the Vietnam War, stated that “if seriously wounded … chances of survival would be better in the zone of combat than on the average city street.” So, the signature of President Lyndon Johnson provided federal funding through the National Highway Safety Act of 1966 that not only provided for the establishment of EMS programs, but thoughtfully placed the system within the federal Department of Transportation. Although the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Acts of the 1980’s under President Ronald Reagan transformed direct federal EMS funding into state preventive health and health services block grants, federal guidance remained within the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
The numbers 9-1-1 were added to the American experience by AT&T in 1968 and it grew slowly across the nation as more communities demanded Emergency Medical Services. The most effective recognition of out-of-hospital care throughout the 1970’s came as the result of a television show simply called “Emergency!” This drama highlighted the results of efforts by early cardiologists like Drs. Lown, Zoll and Pantridge in having developed portable devices capable of disrupting the lethal dysrhythmias of v-fib effectively parlaying paramedicine from a focus primarily on trauma to include chronic medical conditions within the home as well. Pediatric trauma would not be officially recognized until 1984 with an Emergency Medical Services for Children study leading to a report finally published in 1993. The patchwork quilt of EMS continued to grow with increasing interest and even more piecemeal funding. Economist Jack Stout led a revolution in economic modeling of EMS systems during the 80’s and 90’s in response to the imbalance of demand and financing that had already fractured EMS into a kaleidoscope of models from fire-based, public safety to “third-service” public utility models to for-profit integrated healthcare businesses.
It is certainly no accident that our industry has ended up in the position we are today. As W.E. Deming has taught the world, “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” And we proudly embrace the philosophy that states “when you’ve seen one EMS, you’ve seen one EMS” because we still believe that each service knows the particular unique expectations of their individual community while allowing insurance companies to dictate reimbursement rates. As a result, there is little federal standardization beyond a minimum national level of competency and few local agencies that are funded as “essential services” even though the NAEMT has advocated this position for years.
Today, it is heart disease that has overtaken the American consciousness as waistbands expand across the countryside demanding more from our organs than the body was designed to provide. In addition, we face new biological and socio-economic challenges for delivering healthcare in the field. We’ve needed a new road map like the EMS Agenda 2050, but we can’t just sit back and wait for it to happen. As professionals, we all need to educate ourselves on topics like Emergency Triage, Treatment, and Transport (ET3) and health information exchanges that are being piloted at select services. We must be the change we want to promote.