There’s a widespread belief that ambulances mainly serve the sick or injured by providing glorified taxi service to a hospital.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Yet that misconception continues to be spread by people who should know better.
A major network anchor covering the Boston Marathon Bomber manhunt said it had been an hour since the second suspect had been taken from the scene by ambulance. So, the anchor told us, by now the suspect was at a hospital and was being treated for his wounds.
Actually, he was being treated from the moment the first medic from that ambulance reached his side.
That’s how modern emergency medical services (EMS) work. The patient is treated from the second medics arrive. The medics are in constant contact with the emergency room (ER) doctors and staff until they turn over treatment at the hospital.
Medics stabilize the patient and, as needed, start an IV to administer crucial drugs.
In cases involving serious trauma or symptoms suggesting cardiac issues, the medics will attach a monitor so they and the hospital can get heart and other vital signs in real time, just as they would if the patient was in ICU.
Paramedics can perform a variety of life-saving procedures, either independently or under verbal supervision by radio or cell phone from the hospital staff.
When the patient arrives at the hospital, the receiving staff already knows many crucial details of his or her medical condition and is ready to start tests or procedures that can’t be performed in the field.
Many ambulances are marked as “Advanced Life Support” units or “Mobile Intensive Care Units” because that’s precisely what they are.
Such service isn’t confined to big cities. OTEMS covers about one-third of Rogers County, around 200 square miles. The largest city has a population under 1,500. Yet all OTEMS units are Advanced Life Support, which means each includes a paramedic on every call and provides the tools needed to treat patients.
Still, law enforcement accident reports almost universally say that victims were “transported” by the ambulance service to a hospital where they were treated or being treated for whatever injuries they suffered.
Major news outlets continue to feed that misconception with comments such as that involving the Boston bomber’s apprehension.
Perhaps those who feed the stereotype have been watching too many old movies, such as the 1976 classic Mother, Jugs and Speed starring Bill Cosby and Raquel Welch.
Unfortunately, it provided a pretty accurate picture of ambulance service in many places at that time. Crews did fight over who would handle a call while the patient was bleeding in the gutter. The winners sent the patient a bill, but the patient got little treatment.
I saw that system working the streets of Kansas City about that time, and once the media exposed it the public demanded action and soon a real paramedic service was in place. It has been at the cutting edge of emergency medicine ever since.
Today in Oklahoma, we have true emergency medical services with treatment protocols approved by experienced emergency physicians and operations regulated by the State Department of Health. The days when funeral homes also provided ambulance service are long gone.
In Canada, the City of Winnipeg announced earlier this month that it will offer a community paramedic service for those who need a medical examination but whose ailments fall short of needing emergency room or hospital care.
“Community paramedicine is an innovative approach that will meet the needs of individuals seeking health care, while leaving emergency ambulances available to respond to critically ill patients in the community,” Scott Fielding, a creator of the program, said in making the announcement April 2.
OTEMS is researching the possibility of providing a similar community paramedicine program for the Oologah-Talala school district.
In short, the scoop-and-run school of ambulance operations is long gone. Today paramedic-level ambulance services do so much more than just transport patients. They provide initial treatment that is crucial to critical patients’ survival.
Now it’s time to get rid of the old stereotype and give these highly trained medical professionals the credit they deserve.
John M. Wylie II has been public information officer for OTEMS ambulance, based in Oologah, since 2006 and served in the same capacity for Rogers County Emergency Management for 13 years before that.