Ties That Bind

By January 2, 2015 Stories No Comments
Are you EMS Strong? Tell your friends.

How three agencies have provided innovative community outreach

By Jenifer Goodwin

It’s always rewarding to be highly regarded, whether it’s by customers, coworkers or your community. This is especially true for EMS. How patients, community leaders and elected officials regard an EMS agency can impact the level of support-financial and otherwise-an organization receives. That’s no small matter during times when difficult spending decisions are made. EMS Week is a timely way to remind the public and civic leaders of your vital role, and to connect with citizens when they aren’t in the midst of a crisis.

“If the population loves the EMS system, they are going to stand up and make sure it gets the needed funding;’ says Janna Binder, director of marketing and public relations for Professional Research Consultants (PRC), a survey and market research company in Omaha, Neb. that specializes in health care-related clients, including EMS.

The question for EMS is: How do you build a better reputation?

The most obvious answer is: Provide excellent patient care.

Indeed, according to a 2008 survey of 1,000 patients who’d recently been transported by one of 20 EMS agencies nationwide, PRC found that those who perceived their paramedics as highly knowledgeable and skilled were more likely to be very satisfied with their treatment and level of care during their EMS encounter.

Yes skill and knowledge matter, but those weren’t the most important factors driving patient perceptions. The top two? Teamwork among EMS personnel and offering clear explanations for treatment or tests being done were highest, according to the survey. Both factors measure how well EMS crews are communicating to one another and to patients, a critical aspect of patient care, says Brooks Dameier, PRe’s EMS project manager.

Telling patients what you’re doing in a way they understand-and showing compassion in the process–is critical to creating “community ambassadors.”

That means always remembering to tell patients and their families what you’re doing and why in language they can understand. It means making sure to show compassion and kindness in your words and body language, Dameier says.

In PRC surveys, patients who rated their experience with EMS as “outstanding” were over five times more likely to recommend the EMS agency or speak positively about it to others than patients who marked merely “very good’: “It’s those ‘wow’ experiences where you build loyalty;’ Dameier says. “That’s how you create community ambassadors who can generate goodwill and help spread those perceptions.”

Yet patients aren’t the only ones that EMS agencies need to focus on to ensure effective communications. Many EMS leaders from well-respected organizations say establishing programs that improve the health and safety of residents-some who may never need to dial 911 builds ties that benefit both the community and EMS.

That strategy is working for the Edina (Minn.) Fire Department. Chief Marty Scheerer appears at civic groups, women’s clubs, schools and senior organizations to talk about the services his firefighter/paramedics offer. That includes visiting homes of the elderly to change batteries in fire alarms, organizing holiday toy and food collection drives, and offering drop-in blood pressure  checks in their stations.

“We don’t want to just react to fires,” Scheerer says. “We want to be proactive. It’s the right thing to do.

But as a side benefit, it helps our organization and lets people know we’re not sitting there waiting for something to happen. We are being efficient with money and looking for ways to expand our responsibilities in the community:’

Jeff Dumermuth, chief of West Des Moines (Iowa) EMS, agrees. Community outreach is certainly one aspect of building a sense of connectiveness between EMS and the community. Yet in difficult economic times, EMS has to make sure it’s not only efficient with money-but also making sure the community knows it.

Nine years ago, Dumermuth’s third service EMS agency cut costs by sharing some administrative and billing staff with the county. More recently, West Des Moines EMS was chosen to provide ambulance transport to Iowa Health Des Moines, a four-hospital system. In return, the hospital system agreed to cover 30 percent of administrative costs for West Des Moines EMS, to hire eight new full-time paramedics and EMTs, and purchase three ambulances. The hospital system is planning to add a fourth ambulance soon, Dumermuth says.

In 2009, that arrangement saved the city of West Des Moines taxpayers $200,000 in administrative costs. And doing specialty transports for the city also gave paramedics and EMTs more experience in transporting neonatal and pediatric patients, groups they would not normally often encounter.

“While our city continues to struggle with budgets, we have been able to maintain service by being creative with partnerships and outside revenue sources,” Dumermuth says.

Your reputation is everything in your community. If your community doesn’t believe in you, they are not going to support you. ”

-Bruce Baxter, New Britain EMS

While maintaining an already strong reputation requires careful attention, altering perceptions is even tougher. That was the challenge faced by Bruce Baxter, CEO of New Britain (Conn.) EMS, which serves a city of about 70,000. Fourteen years ago, the city’s common council (city council) lost faith in the organization and withdrew some $500,000 a year in funding, Baxter says. Turning that shop around was a painstaking process that included overhauling the agency’s financial management, forming new strategic partnerships and reaching out to the community.

EMTs and paramedics of New Britain’s (Conn.) EMS are visible in the community, providing injury prevention and educational programs.

“Your reputation is everything in your community,” Baxter says. “If your community doesn’t believe in you, they are not going to support you.”

Paramedics and EMTs provide numerous injury prevention and emergency preparedness education programs, including free child safety seat installation and inspections, and serving as an American Heart Association Community Training Center for CPR. The organization is also helping seniors and others sign up for Invisible Bracelet, a new, Internet-based medic-alert system that enables people to sign up, receive a personal ID number and store important medical information that can be easily accessed by EMS and physicians, as well enabling EMS to instantly generate text, email or phone messages to family members in case of emergency.

In an area of high unemployment, New Britain EMS is also offering job training. This includes partnering with the local high school to offer students emergency medical responder training programs, and joining forces with a local social services agency to offer summer internships through a federal grant. Both programs are designed to teach disadvantaged kids life skills and work habits to help them succeed after graduating.

Recently, the agency also opened the New Britain Emergency Medical Services Academy at Central Connecticut State University’s Institute of Technology and Business Development. The center, which offers continuing education and new certifications for EMTs and paramedics, and AHA courses, served 3,000 students in its first year. Any profits generated will go back into supporting the city’s emergency medical services.

“By binding yourself to the community, you start changing the way people think of you from being just an ambulance service to being a team player that is vested in the overall health and wellness of the community,” Baxter says .