Many students entering college on the pre-health track suffer from the same common struggle — getting meaningful clinical experience — especially given the time restraints at college and certification requirements. Much beyond merely trying to check the box for clinical experience for medical, physician assistant, or nursing school candidacy, being able to more closely experience what a life in healthcare might mean for you can be essential in your decision to potentially pursue medicine. To this end, working as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) throughout your undergraduate years or during a gap year can prove to be an impactful experience that further fuels and informs your trajectory.
Where Do Emergency Medical Technicians Work?
The majority of EMTs work on ambulance services across the country. There are three main types of ambulance services: interfacility transport (ex. between hospitals or discharges), 911 dispatch, and those that perform both services. These agencies may be associated with your local fire department or may be independent; they can also be public or private agencies depending on your municipality. Some universities also have student-run ambulance crews; these can be more convenient opportunities for students (they are often closer, have lower call rates, and some even pick you up at your dorm for service) but can also come with restrictions (such as only serving active students or not being able to transport patients). Experience as an EMT can also help one land Emergency Room Technician positions in some hospitals.
What Does an Emergency Medical Technician Do?
Have you ever called an ambulance before? If so, you have probably met an EMT. EMTs usually work as partners with another EMT or a paramedic to form an ambulance crew. As an EMT on an ambulance service, you work directly with patients for prolonged periods of time. For someone with an Emergency Medical Technician Basic degree (EMT-B), you are able to lead care for anyone with a basic life support (BLS) level complaint and assist in care for advanced life support (ALS) cases (or care for an ALS patient until an ALS level provider such as a paramedic or the hospital is available). Skills an EMT-B is certified to perform include but are not limited to:
- CPR at the BLS level
- Rapid physical trauma assessment
- Medical assessment
- Medication administration (ex. epinephrine, naloxone, nitroglycerin)
- Manual ventilatory support and oxygen administration
- Bleeding control and tourniquet application
- Splinting and immobilization
- Extrication techniques
Given that patients calling 911 or being otherwise transported via ambulance are often struggling both physically and emotionally with a medical emergency, EMTs spend considerable time honing their soft-skills as a medical provider to help elicit important information from patients, soothe patients, and encourage patients to receive necessary care. As an EMT, one will deal with a variety of emergencies, such as cardiac arrest, behavioral emergencies, traumatic injuries, and more.
How Can I Become an Emergency Medical Technician?
To become an Emergency Medical Technician, you must first take an EMT-B course. These are often offered at fire academies, independent Emergency Medical Services (EMS) teaching facilities, community colleges, or your local university. These courses usually range in length from 1 month accelerated courses to 6 month part-time courses. Since accelerated courses can run for up to eight hours every day and demand additional study hours, students often struggle to manage the workload of an accelerated course alongside other classes or jobs. As an EMT instructor, I would recommend not committing to other activities while taking an accelerated course and carefully working to balance your workload if taking a longer EMT-B course on top of other commitments. Courses typically cost $850 - $1400 and will include didactic lectures, hands-on psychomotor skills sessions, and clinical ride time. The didactic lectures and skills sessions cover topics such as anatomy, common medical emergencies, treatment interventions, and how to provide legal and ethical patient care. The clinical ride time often entails working multiple shifts on an ambulance service or in an emergency room setting, taking medical vitals and performing medical assessments on patients under supervision. Even if one does not go on to work at an ambulance agency as an EMT, one gains the benefit of these live clinical hours in addition to the in-class work that trains you to think like a medical practitioner. After passing an EMT-B course, one would need to either take the state exam or National Registry EMT exam (NREMT) depending on the state(s) one would like to work in. If you take the NREMT, you have to then apply for a state license; the state exam in most areas automatically grants you a license to practice in that state. At this point, one can apply for an EMT position at an ambulance service. Most ambulance services will require an onboarding period to learn about company-specific logistics, charting protocols, and to gain more experience on a variety of calls before being cleared to work independently. One can also pursue further training to become an ALS provider, such as an Advanced Emergency Medical Technician (AEMT), paramedic, or flight medic.
Can I Balance Work as an Emergency Medical Technician?
While the specific hourly requirements will vary by agency, many college students find working part-time as an EMT throughout college to be manageable. A reasonable weekly shift load will also depend on the call volume of the agency; more urban areas will often have ambulance crews with a considerably higher patient turnover than in rural areas. It is also important to note that call volume is highly unpredictable; one might have shifts that are entirely free that can be used to do other work while others can be so busy that you are not able to eat during the shift. Shifts also have the potential to run long, as you have to fully complete the calls assigned by dispatch to your crew — and the resultant cleanup, restocking, and paperwork. Some ambulance agencies may also require a minimum number of night or weekend shifts from each employee in order to keep the service running. Many of my EMT students have gone on to work part-time during the academic terms at local or university-owned ambulance agencies; others work as EMTs at home over breaks or just wanted the experience and clinical hours of the course itself. Some students also gain EMT certification after graduation and choose to work during a gap year while applying to medical school or studying for the MCAT. There may be multiple different agencies accessible to you where you live or go to school, so take care to research your options and choose what fits your availability best. Overall, working as an EMT can provide you with a flexible, eye-opening experience in medicine that can help you decide if medicine is right for you and begin your development as a potential healthcare provider.