The People Business

     When it comes down to it, we really don't provide much actual emergency medicine. It's rare that our full clinical capabilities are truly required to save lives in the field. But that doesn't mean we have little to offer. On the contrary, we can improve the quality of life of everyone who calls us. Improving someone's quality of life is the greatest gift you can give, and separates excellent EMS providers from others. This article will discuss five powerful tools you can use to make a difference in the lives of those you encounter, both professionally and personally.

     I. A Passion for People—I tell new EMTs and paramedics that they're in the people business, and passion makes the biggest difference. If you're going to have an impact on somebody's life, you have to be excited about what you do.

     Before your next shift, ask yourself how passionate you are about your work. Does it show? Get honest assessments about your level of desire from coworkers or your spouse. Many EMSers let life and its circumstances get them off track. If this has happened to you, think back to when you started. Remember the lives you touched, the people who will never forget you, and try to recapture your passion.

     You should also associate with people who have a passion for people. It sounds corny, but birds of a feather really do flock together. If you've lost some of your fire, get around people who haven't, because passion is contagious.

     II. Positive Attitude—The second thing you must do is control your attitude. Attitude is more important than education, appearance, skill or talent. It can make or break personal relationships, business organizations and teams of all sorts.

     The good news is that you have a choice every day regarding the attitude you wear. You may not have control over things around you, but you can control how you respond to them. Focus on the way you interact with people and attend to their needs. You must consciously decide to not let external factors affect your attitude, because doing so impedes your ability to give your customers your best.

     III. Build Relationships—The third tool of a great provider is the ability to build successful relationships. Indifferent people deliver impersonal service. Though you spend only a short time with your customers, you can and must establish sincere and trusting relationships with them.

     Several years ago, I responded to the home of an elderly lady named Betty who had called 9-1-1 for chest pains. Upon evaluation, we knew she was on the verge of having a heart attack and needed to be transported. Betty insisted we just give her some pills and leave her at home. I held Betty's hand and explained the necessity of seeing a physician. She continued to resist. I then shifted the conversation and focused on Betty the person, not Betty the soon-to-be heart attack victim. I asked her about herself and quickly discovered that since she lived alone, she was concerned that if she were hospitalized, there would be nobody to care for her cat. My partner then contacted the next-door neighbor, who agreed to take care of Betty's cat. Betty was thrilled and allowed us to transport her to the hospital.

     By establishing a relationship with Betty, I was able to meet her needs and get her the care she required. Had I continued to pressure her based on her clinical condition, she may have eventually acceded, but the experience would have been second-rate for her, and the care possibly less than optimal.

     Attending to your patients' clinical needs is really only a small part of your job. Attending to the whole person, including their emotional needs, is what your customers deserve.

     IV. Be a Master Communicator—Positively interacting with people and building successful relationships requires effective communication. This goes far beyond the verbal. You have to interpret mental states and discern true meanings behind words. You must learn to communicate at the emotional level. This involves eye contact, tone of voice, body language and facial expressions—listening with your eyes as well as your ears.

     Say you're attending to a customer involved in a motor vehicle crash. You ask her if she's hurt, and she quickly says no. As you question her, you notice she won't look at you, she's wincing, and she pulls away as you try to feel her radial pulse. It should be obvious that she's hurt and too scared to verbally admit it. Realizing this, you should direct the conversation toward her immediate emotional needs—this will enable you to truly identify her medical needs and ultimately the best course of treatment. Make sure you're perceived correctly. It's not what you meant to say that matters, but what was understood.

     V. Share a Smile—The final way to improve the quality of life of those you interact with is sharing your sense of humor. Of course making jokes during emergency situations is improper. But in many instances, when appropriate, a moment of laughter can give the suffering a change of perspective. It can break the ice and put you on the fast track to building a relationship.

     As an EMS provider, you have the privileged ability to give the greatest gift one human can give to another: a better quality of life. By possessing a deep passion for people, displaying a good attitude, building effective relationships, being a master communicator and appropriately sharing your sense of humor, you can make a positive difference in the lives of everyone around you.

Larry Boxman has worked as a firefighter/paramedic, training director and has been the Vice President of Operations for Metro West Ambulance in Washington County, OR, for the past 10 years. He is a graduate of the Oregon Graduate Institute's Six Sigma "Black Belt" program. Contact him at