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Rural Emergency Medical Services: Calling 911 And Getting No Answer

by Michael Muldoon |  ❘ 

A Growing Shortage of Emergency Medical Services in Rural Areas

Rural America is struggling to support its communities with emergency healthcare. Emergency medical services (EMS) respond to 911 calls requiring immediate medical assistance. These services not only provide medical treatment at the scene, but also act as transportation to the nearest medical center if one is necessary or available.

Unfortunately, many small, rural, American communities don’t have hospitals nearby, and they rely on their EMS teams to get residents aid and, if need be, drive them to another town’s hospital. It’s these services that are running out of support in both funding and staffing throughout the rural US. This is a significant problem, as the opioid epidemic continues to rage in rural areas, and meth use is on the rise.

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Dwindling Resources for Emergency Medical Services

It takes money and labor to make sure communities have access to emergency services when necessary. Many larger communities can afford to fund EMS agencies that always have people on hand in case of emergency. This kind of around the clock assurance comes at a price, and not one many rural communities can afford. Only 11 states recognize EMS as necessary to the citizens, which means that only those 11 states give state funding to their EMS agencies. In the other 39 states, 60% of their EMS agencies are funded by community fundraising alone.

In lieu of payed positions, people in these circumstances have to volunteer their time outside of their daily jobs to ensure their community has access to EMS. Between 70% and 74% of rural emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and emergency medical responders (EMRs) work as unpaid volunteers. In the smallest communities there may be no doctor in town, and only a hand full of people willing to volunteer their time to help those in need. Running these agencies with only a couple people means that, if someone were to stop volunteering, it could put the operation out of business. Nearly 1/3 of all rural EMS agencies are under threat of shutting down because of either budgetary constraints or a lack of personnel.

Consequences of Shutting Down

In the event that a community loses its EMS, it increases the stress on their neighbors’ EMS. People’s medical emergencies will still need to be addressed, but now ambulances will have to drive in from the nearest town over. In some states, towns may only be a few miles apart, but in many rural areas, communities may be 50 miles apart. This poses obvious issues in not only emergency response speed, but the amount of time spent on every call. One town losing its EMS may end up endangering the EMS agencies of all of its neighbors.

Possible Solutions

Some lawmakers are pushing for reforms in the way EMT volunteers are treated. Offering benefits, paying for utilities, and more options have been suggested as options for easing the lives of current volunteers and enticing others to join. Volunteer numbers have been declining, especially among younger participants. Large proportions of young people from these towns are leaving to more populated areas, which not only means that there are fewer able-bodied volunteers to choose from, but that the older, more medical emergency prone population is left vulnerable.

These volunteers have also brought light to the fact that the courses and classes required to be certified as an EMT or EMR can cost more than $600. Without proper funding, this price falls squarely on the volunteers to pay, which can further strain their ability to volunteer if money is an issue. Along with the initial certification, there are annual and bi-annual tests done to ensure that medical staff continue to qualify for emergency service. Access to more funding could help pay these costs and create less pressure on volunteers, which may encourage others to join in.

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The Future of Emergency Medical Services

The prospect of new benefits for EMS volunteers has heartened those working in more remote towns. That said, hospitals in rural areas are closing at a frightening rate, making EMS agencies all the more valuable to these communities. Imagine you or someone you love is having a heart attack, you call 911 and no one comes. That is a reality people throughout the US are facing, and without the proper support, more people may die waiting for help.

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