Most people assume that EMS training is focused primarily on the technical aspects of responding to emergencies and providing care to patients. While that’s certainly a priority, there are other aspects of providing emergency services that cannot be overlooked.
Among the important aspects: Communication. In fact, as in most fields, good communication skills are among the most sought after “soft skills” in EMS. Communication is vital at all levels of providing emergency services, from leaders who need to work with other agencies and providers to those in the field who need to communicate with patients, their families, hospital staff, and other responders. And it’s about more than just being able to provide clear directions to patients or explain a patient’s condition to an ER nurse. The way that you speak, the words you choose, and even your body language sends a message, and unless you are aware of how you may be perceived, you could be unintentionally sending the wrong one.
Because communication is so important, many EMS training programs have begun incorporating communication skills training into their programs, with the intent of improving communication at all levels to deliver better, higher quality care.
Problems in EMS Communication
One area where communication tends to be a serious issue is between EMS providers and emergency room staff. Despite working toward a common goal, there are often communication breakdowns between the teams, creating resentment, frustration, and even anger that can impact patient care.
Research has revealed a few issues in this area. Some EMS providers note that the manner in which ER personnel speaks to them comes across as questioning their judgement or skills, if not actually rude. At the same time, ER personnel note that medics don’t always provide clear details of a patient’s condition, or explanations about why they’ve made certain decisions. These communication breakdowns can spill over into patient care.
Another area where communication is important in EMS, and lacking, is in working with patients themselves. A great deal of communication is nonverbal, but many medics fail to remember that their facial expressions, tone, gestures, and posture can greatly effect a patient’s state. Patients want to know that they are in good hands and that they will be okay. Unfortunately, many EMT’s are so focused on the tasks at hand that they forget to monitor their nonverbal communication and inadvertently send the wrong message.
Communication among the team is also important in EMS. Even on teams that have worked together before, communication can help reduce repetition, streamline care, and get a patient stabilized more quickly. In fact, it’s not until many emergency providers work in an environment in which everyone is constantly communicating and knows what others are doing at all times that they realize how important that is, and take steps to improve their own skills to ensure the best possible care.
Improving EMS Communication Skills
Improving communication skills among EMS providers has become a priority in many communities, and the issue is being addressed via a number of approaches.
For starters, EMS and hospital personnel in many communities are working together more closely to identify issues and make changes to improve working relationships. These include developing communication guidelines and discussing expectations, problems, and protocols to ensure clear and respectful communication on both sides.
Many EMS and EMS leadership degree programs have also instituted communication training into their curricula, with simulation exercises a key aspect of the education. Simulations have long been used as a tool to teach assessment techniques, technical skills, and patient care fundamentals. Many of these simulations have been focused on specific technical skills, with communication little more than a footnote or afterthought. Understanding the importance of communication has led to the development of exercises specifically designed to develop and test communication skills. Students are no longer evaluated strictly on their ability to perform tasks, but rather also on how they communicate with the patient, their colleagues, and other responders.
Simulations are also being used to help EMS providers, both new and experienced, more effectively communicate with family members, especially in difficult circumstances. Most EMS providers will agree that informing friends and family that a patient has died is one of the most difficult aspects of their job, and not one that they enjoy doing. While it may never be comfortable or enjoyable to deliver that news, practicing during a simulation can help you build the necessary skills to share that information, or other difficult news, in a compassionate manner.
As EMS becomes more complex, and providers play a bigger role in the delivery of healthcare in general, communication is going to become an increasingly important skill. Those who are beginning their training now, and those working toward becoming leaders, will enter the field well-trained in this area, and prepared to meet the challenges that modern EMS presents.