Local and National Efforts Improve Rural EMS Safety

by Candi Helseth

Getting ready to leave the office late one Friday evening, Rowan County Emergency Medical Service (EMS) Paramedic Bradley Dean became alarmed when he read about a medication error that another EMS service had reported on the web-based EMS Voluntary Event Notification Tool (EVENT).

Dean, who also oversees safety training for Rowan County EMS in North Carolina, headed directly to the ambulance bay. There he found the same potential for error: two medications with very different purposes packaged very similarly by different manufacturers. They were placed in close proximity in the small ambulance fridge. Dean immediately ordered re-marking and repositioning the meds, preventing a similar incident from happening in Rowan County.

Preventing harm is EVENT’s main purpose. The web-based system, implemented in 2010, encourages anonymous reporting of EMS errors throughout the United States and Canada. In March, EVENT expanded its outreach with the addition of “near misses” (potential EMS practitioner problems recognized before they actually occurred) and EMS practitioner line of duty death incidents (LODD). The National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians (NAEMT) and the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Research for EMS (CLIR-EMS) jointly developed the program.

“EVENT is a non-punitive, confidential system that helps to identify changes needed in EMS systems and processes, and does so without placing blame on individual practitioners,” said Gary Wingrove, CLIR-EMS president and director of Gold Cross/Mayo Clinic Medical Transport of Minnesota and Western Wisconsin.

“The goal is to improve these EMS systems by identifying situations where a patient was potentially harmed, could possibly be harmed or where a ‘close call’ has occurred. This anonymous information is shared among providers and the data is used in training, educating and preventing similar events from occurring in the future.”

No national model for safety practices, or any formal means of research and data collection to facilitate improvements, previously existed in the EMS industry, Wingrove said, adding that hospitals use event reporting systems as a key component contributing to quality improvement (QI) efforts. Wingrove and Matt Womble, formerly a Rural Hospital and EMS Specialist at the NC Office of Rural Health and Community Care (ORHCC) and now VP for Program Development at the NC Foundation for Advanced Health Programs, review EVENT reports in the United States and notify area EMS governing bodies where the event occurred. Patient safety incidents are also posted to a Google Group to improve awareness among EMS practitioners nationwide. Aggregate data that is shared online highlights EMS trends and practice analyses. EVENT reports also establish a way to determine if equipment failures are attributable to faulty development that needs to be addressed or if a failure was simply an isolated incident.

“The purpose here is to gather information and learn from it,” Womble said. “With any kind of stress and in fast-paced environments like trauma situations, we know the chance for human error increases. We haven’t had a universal way to report errors or near misses. We don’t have a lot of data in EMS about the factors that contribute to errors. By using frontline information we get from EVENT, we identify where we can improve EMS services and how to do so in the fastest way possible.”

Implementing better safety protocols and practices

Gold Cross ambulance

Gold Cross ambulance service in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin has implemented safety initiatives including a driver monitoring system that measures ambulance acceleration, braking and provider handling.

EMS safety and quality improvement begins at local levels. Safety and protocols vary greatly from state to state, and even regionally within a state, Wingrove said.

A 2008 study, Contributing Factors and Issues Associated With Rural Ambulance Crashes, found that at least 6,500 ambulance crashes occur annually in the United States. Accidents in rural areas tend to be more severe in terms of injury or death, mostly due to the greater distances and travel times to reach hospitals and more limited availability of additional EMS staff when an accident occurs. Another study co-authored by Daniel Patterson, a researcher and primary investigator with the Emergency Medical Services Agency Research Network (EMSARN), found that more than one-half of EMS providers suffer from poor sleep quality and mental and physical fatigue while at work.

Rowan County EMS, which responds to about 13,000 calls each year, developed and implemented a triage protocol to address safety issues related to transporting general medicine patients. Dean said family requests for patient transports to large, distant hospitals were taking ambulances out of their area for extended periods when the severity of the patient’s condition didn’t warrant it. North Carolina has statewide triage and destination protocols aimed at improving outcomes for cardiac, stroke, trauma and burn patients.

“The state is looking at implementing our protocol statewide too,” Dean said. “Our plan reduces long distance transports, which also reduces staff fatigue and decreases risk of ambulance accidents.”

Gold Cross ambulance service assesses and addresses possible ambulance operation issues using a driver monitoring system, which can measure safety factors such as ambulance acceleration, braking and provider handling. Gold Cross has also adapted its air ambulance Risk Assessment Tool (RAT) for ground EMS operations. Paramedics complete a risk assessment prior to long distance transfers to assess the safety risk of each transport. The tool assesses and scores factors such as the vehicle operator’s experience, road conditions, weather, crew fatigue, etc. The final score determines how the transport will proceed and what factors need to change for transport to occur safely.

“I think our innovation shows in the way we achieve our safety program, specifically these tools,” Wingrove commented. “Some other EMS agencies have started adopting our methods.”

In operation for 50 years, Gold Cross has been integrated with Mayo Clinic Medical Transport since 1994. The ground ambulance serves 12 percent of the state’s population in urban and rural areas, responding to more than 50,000 calls each year. As a result, Wingrove said, its increased volume translates into improved financial resources for advanced safety technologies.

Employee training is critical to improving safety, said Gold Cross Safety and Emergency Planning Coordinator Mike Sveen. In addition to its EMS staff, Gold Cross trains rural firefighters, law enforcement and other first responders. Dual response, where firefighters and ambulance are simultaneously dispatched to a call, is common in rural service areas. In certain situations—such as defiant patients under the influence of drugs or alcohol or where accident scenes may involve hazardous chemicals – local law enforcement also responds.

“We really work on training people on scene recognition to make sure the scene is safe before they enter,” Sveen said. “We have resources for them in our ambulances like standard operating guidelines on hazardous materials and ways to identify those chemicals.”

Rowan County EMS educates and empowers staff, Dean said. “We’ve had a couple cases where patients using cocaine were having adverse reactions. Our staff knows what they need to do to be most effective with a violent patient and how they should also keep themselves safe, like thinking through how they have a way to escape if the situation gets too bad. And they have the authority to make decisions without having to call in and ask.”

Pressing for better national patient safety measures and data

The variation in state safety programs results in a fragmented system nationwide, Wingrove said. He is working with Womble and Dean to develop a national EMS Patient Safety Organization slated to begin by the end of this year. PSOs are under the umbrella of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

“The concept is that having a PSO will drive QI and systems improvement based on data collection and reporting,” Womble explained. “A PSO sets higher standards for agencies. We had a case here where a stair chair broke and the patient was dropped. Fortunately, the patient was OK but we could see the design was faulty. We wanted the company to recall it and redesign it but it took a long time to get to that point. A PSO will essentially give us more teeth to get a product changed, for instance, because we have a greater group of people pressing for these safety changes.”

Womble said North Carolina was one of the first states to implement an EMS data system. The University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine oversees an EMS Performance Improvement Center responsible for collecting and assimilating data from EMS agencies’ patient care reports statewide. These are entered into the North Carolina Office of EMS (NC OEMS) Prehospital Medical Information System (PreMIS) developed to improve quality and performance of EMS systems across the state.

Because state data collection and abilities differ so much, the National EMS Information System (NEMSIS), was developed to help local and state agencies collect more standardized elements and eventually submit the data to a national EMS database.

But despite the efforts underway, Patterson says the EMS industry is a long way from achieving a national safety culture. EMSARN’s definition of safety culture is that “it encompasses the behaviors, actions, inaction, policies, procedures, language, traditions, and practices that front-line and administrative personnel engage in every day in EMS agencies.” Currently, EMSARN is conducting research to develop and test measures of safety for the EMS setting, provide benchmarking safety data for EMS nationwide, and give individual EMS agencies a free resource for evaluating and monitoring safety conditions.

“Individual worker perceptions of their EMS agency’s safety culture have a direct impact on the interactions between EMS clinicians and their patients,” Patterson asserted. “Those interactions then determine, in part, the safety outcomes for both patients and providers. To improve safety in EMS, we need a total rethinking of how we care for patients and how we deliver that care.”

For more information on rural EMS issues, see the following Rural Health Information Hub Topic Guides:

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