Ten Things You Can’t Learn About EMS

                                        From Your Computer


As you might imagine, I’m a big fan of E-learning. I also have a soft spot for the social media craze. But there are still a few things that you just can’t learn staring at a computer screen. OK, there are a LOT of things you can’t learn staring at a computer screen. Here are ten:


1.) You can’t learn pattern recognition.

If you’ve ever wondered about how experienced EMTs and medics can figure out exactly what’s wrong with the patient two steps inside the front door, it’s not magic. It’s pattern recognition. When you’ve seen what CHF looks like a hundred times, you can pick out the pattern almost instantaneously. Watch a hundred people have cardiac chest pain and you’ll be able to see it from across the room. But it doesn’t matter how many times you read those chapters in your books. You need to see it.


2.) You can’t learn how to put people a ease.

Until you’ve become comfortable with your own skills and knowledge, your not going to be able to put others at easy. That only comes from experience. You’re going to need to run a lot of calls before you feel comfortable enough in your own skin to be able to calm an anxious patient with your words and demeanor.


3.) You can learn to delegate and run a scene.

Bringing the scene together and using resources efficiently without bruising anyone’s delicate ego is an art form that you’ll develop your whole career. We can write about it and give you pointers but when it comes down to it, you’re going to have to learn it on your own.


4.) You can’t learn from your patient.

After you’ve poured over all the books, the videos, the teachers, the blogs and the partners, you learn that the best teacher you could ever have is your patient. Your patients and their bodies are a wealth of medical knowledge and information. And you can’t meet them sitting in front of your computer screen.


5.) You can’t learn your strengths.

Sure you can learn about the skills and the fancy medical stuff. But until you go out and apply it, you’re never going to know what you’re really good at … until you actually do it. Then you’ll know. But not while your sitting here.


6.) You can’t learn your weaknesses.

You’ll learn an awful lot about yourself after your first couple of years in EMS. One of the most valuable things you’ll learn about is your weaknesses. The prehosital field requires such a diverse skill set that you can’t hide your weaknesses.

If you don’t like talking in front of crowds, you’re going to find out. If you’re a horrible speller, it’s going to haunt you. If you get frustrated reasoning with drunk people, brace yourself. You can’t hide your weaknesses in EMS. Just embrace them and work to improve. Until you go do it, you’ll never know.


 7.) You can’t learn what things smell like, or feel like.

And you can only simulate what they sound like. Patient assessment really does involve all of the senses. Many details can be learned from the smell of a patients home and the sound of their breathing when you’re walking to the back bedroom. You can’t palpate a mass or hear ronchi online. You need to do it.


8.) You can’t learn patience.

One of the hardest things to learn in EMS is to be patient with people. Especially when they make bad decisions that involve you. When people wake you at 2:00 AM for something they could have taken care of at noon you need to be extremely patient. When folks are really sick but refuse your care, you need patience. When people are violent or aggressive or rude or drunk, you need to be patient. And you can’t learn that by reading about it in a blog.


9.) You can’t learn to trust your instincts.

The more experience we gain in the prehospital environment the more we learn to trust our gut and listen to our instincts about what’s going on.  It guides our treatments, our scene management, our rapport and our safety.

We all develop this critical tool. Some develop it better than others. But you’ll never develop it sitting at Starbucks in front of a laptop. You need to be out there making mistakes. Having good calls and bad calls. Watching things go well and things go poorly. There’s just no other way to do it.


10.) You can’t learn to be authentic.

And no other single thing may have greater bearing on your success in EMS. People who excel in our field tend to be very authentic. You develop authenticity as you become more comfortable in your shoes.

You find that your willing to take charge when the scene needs your leadership and fall back when it does not. You learn to adapt your style to build rapport with your patient and your coworkers. You become more willing to admit when you don’t know what’s going on, to draw upon your resources and know that they are necessary.

You learn to drop the false bravado and act with genuine confidence. You make peace with the fact that you own your bad calls as much as you own your good ones. This is all crucial to the process of becoming comfortable in your EMT shoes.  And it will only happen as you do the job.


Now you can turn off the computer and go begin learning.

Of course, if you’re not ready yet … here are some Related Articles:

Unconventional Thoughts On Emergency Services

Five Things Sports Can Teach You About Being A Good EMT

One EMT Can Make A Difference


  1. Awesome post. When I saw the title 5 things popped into my head instantly. You hit the 5 perfectly and rounded it out very well. Nice job.

  2. Great points! True motivation to get out from behind the desk more…

  3. I might offer this retitle, “10 things you can’t learn from a computer yet….”

    All 10 points are great and true. A few specific thoughts for the sake of discussion.

    1. patterns, depends on patterns trying to learn. How about looking at 1000s of ECG tracings.

    8. As a lifelong windows user and a long time dial-up user I think I have learned a lot of patience.

    10. Successful use of social media is strongly based on authenticity. I recently met Chris Montera, Jamie Davis, Ted Setla, and Carissa Obrien in person after a long social media connection. They were exactly the people I expected them to be because they have an authentic social media presence.

  4. This post really spoke to me. Steve, you are becoming more critical as this project progresses. Pretty soon you will be hanging out with Rogue Medic and me. You will be slurring your words as you rant and rave.

    But seriously, I have taken online courses that were effective, and I have taken some that were yawn fests. I always wanted to add an online component to my EMT and paramedic classes but never had the budget or resources. I can tell you that I only wanted it to be a component. I always wanted the online portion to serve two purposes:

    1. Cover stuff that was intensely boring and easy to learn but had to be covered.

    2. Cover stuff that was intensely difficult. This material would be done in class but there would also be an online version. Other instructors could view that class to learn how the organization wanted it presented, and so that students could revisit difficult material. I never wanted to make it the basis of the class.

    I am concerned that many programs in the future will use this as something more than it is though. It looks attractive to put things online because it can reduce your instructor budget, so we may see a lot of programs run to this. That would be a mistake though. online learning is but a tool in the tool chest, not a replacement for good old fashioned lecture.

  5. Hi,

    Love this informative site. However, would appreciate normal type, not reversed, which makes it dificult to read.

  6. Tammy K says:

    If my opinion, if it counts, I like the white text on black background. And as always, another great post with great content.

  7. You are so right! I love this post. I cannot tell you how many new emergency medical personnel think they know what they are doing only to find out that they are sorely mistaken. It’s taken me over 12 yrs of first hand experience in the field, in an advanced trauma center, and in the operating room to learn a wealth of knowledge that I would never receive from a book, classroom, or computer!


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