The Pre-Med Guide to Becoming an EMT

EMS Photo from Shutterstock.com

EMS Photo from Shutterstock.com

By Ben Brakke

It’s that time of the year again. Summer is here, school is out, and busy pre-meds are submitting their applications for the new cycle. But while some are applying, many others are in the early phases of their pre-med journey. One crucial part of this journey involves extracurricular activities (ECs). The quality and quantity of a pre-med’s ECs can set him or her apart from the vast sea of other applicants. Within the infinite number of possible ECs that you can participate in as a pre-med, some of the most valued are those that involve direct patient contact. ECs that involve patient contact show that you are truly interested in medicine, and more importantly, that you enjoy caring for people. One EC in particular that accomplishes this with flying colors is working or volunteering as an EMT.

What is an EMT?
EMT stands for Emergency Medical Technician. EMTs are responsible for providing out-of-hospital acute care to patients – usually while the patient is being transported in an ambulance. There are three primary levels of emergency medical certifications: First Responder, EMT, and Paramedic. First Responders are the most basic level of emergency medical providers and Paramedics are an advanced level. EMTs are the middle-of-the-road emergency medical providers and are trained in various skills and the full operations of an ambulance. Being an EMT is perfect for pre-meds because it offers maximal participation, responsibility, and skills while not requiring the year or more of education that a Paramedic certification requires. EMT training is usually equal to 6 college credits and can be done over a summer break or during a regular semester. More info on that later.

What are the benefits to becoming an EMT for pre-med students?

Before I begin this section, I must clarify something. This article is a guide to becoming an EMT, but to get the full benefits of being an EMT, you must actually use your skills to treat patients! Simply becoming an EMT will have little (if any) positive impact on you or your application. The true benefits from becoming an EMT are realized through working or volunteering. Here’s why:

  1. It is a rare opportunity to perform patient care at the provider level. This means that YOU are the primary person responsible for the patient’s medical care. If that sounds daunting, don’t worry just yet – you will be trained to handle just about any scenario and you will almost always have a partner to help you. If being the primary person responsible for a patient sounds fun and exhilarating, welcome aboard. You won’t be disappointed.
  2. You will learn a lot of practical and useful medical knowledge. EMTs working for an ambulance service respond to ALL medical problems. You will see traumatic injuries as well as problems with the neurological, cardiovascular, respiratory, G.I., and endocrine systems – just to name a few. Knowing the basic functioning of these systems will form a foundation for the rest of your medical knowledge to build off of.
  3. You will acclimate to medical emergencies. Starting when you enter medical school and continuing on for the rest of your life, people will turn to you in a medical emergency. Learning how to stay calm and think critically as a pre-med will make you a better medical student and physician.
  4. Working or volunteering for an ambulance service can be a great school-compatible activity. One ambulance service that I volunteered at averaged less than two calls per day. That means that on a 12-hour shift, I had an average of about 9 hours that I could devote to schoolwork if needed.
  5. It can be rewarding and enjoyable. I won’t sugar coat it – things don’t always go well in emergency medicine, and sometimes they really don’t go well, but there are plenty of times when being an EMT is rewarding and enjoyable. Using your knowledge and skills to make a big difference in someone’s life and being responsible for the care of another human being – it’s pretty cool stuff.


What are the downsides to becoming an EMT for pre-med students?

Alas, being an EMT is not perfect and carries some unavoidable risks that are necessary to consider. The most notable disadvantage to working or volunteering as an EMT is the increased risk of injury and illness. Injuries can stem from ambulance crashes, violent patients or bystanders, emotional trauma, and lifting patients or equipment. Minor illness (e.g., influenza) can result from patient contact and communicable diseases (e.g., HIV, Hepatitis) can be contracted from needlestick incidents. Aside from the traffic risks, these risks are not so different from the ones you will face as a medical student and physician. It’s important to be aware of these risks and to do what you can to be safe. Honorable mentions for potential disadvantages include: cost of the EMT class, finding time to take the EMT class, finding a job or place to volunteer at, and fitting working/volunteering in with your school schedule. These disadvantages are fairly easy to overcome with some research and planning.

How do I become an EMT?
To become a certified EMT, you must take an EMT course and pass the written and practical exams. EMT courses are offered at many community colleges and some universities. When offered at a college or university, it is typically a 6 credit course. Community colleges are usually more flexible with classroom times than universities, and community colleges often offer classes that only meet a few days per week in the afternoon. My EMT class was 6pm-10pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays at a community college. Compared to pre-medical coursework, the EMT class is a breeze. It’s a lot of classroom time, but it doesn’t demand a lot of studying or homework. For this reason, it would be possible to take an EMT class on top of a full-time pre-med course load (use caution). Alternatively, you can take an EMT class over the summer, which in my eyes is the ideal scenario. Another method of taking an EMT course is to see if it is being offered at a local fire department or ambulance service. Better yet, you can contact employers with open EMT jobs and see if they will put you through the training. The fire department that I volunteer at will put people through an EMT course at no cost provided they volunteer at the fire department afterwards. When looking for nearby EMT courses, a good place to start would be your state EMS agency. Most state EMS agency websites list EMT courses by location within the state. Also, look online or make some phone calls to local community colleges, universities, ambulance services, and fire departments to see what’s available in your area. After you take the course, you will need to pass the written and practical exams. The written exam is a computer based test with around 100 questions. For the practical test, you will demonstrate some skills (e.g., airway management) to an evaluator. Once you pass all of that, boom! You’re an EMT!

Where can I work or volunteer as an EMT?
The primary function of an EMT is to work on an ambulance service. Ambulance services may staff EMTs only, Paramedics only, or both. Rural services tend to staff EMTs while urban services tend to staff Paramedics or both. Watch for differences in job duties on ambulance services. EMTs on some services run interfacility transport calls and no 911 calls, which can get boring quickly. If you’re looking for experience on an ambulance service, make sure the job involves responding to 911 calls. Another potential facet is fire departments. Many fire departments only hire EMTs who are also firefighters, but some fire departments have ambulance services with just plain EMTs. A third major employment source is hospital emergency departments (EDs). Hospitals hire EMTs to work as ED technicians and perform skills similar to the ones they would do as part of an ambulance service. Working as an ED tech is probably the most lucrative option and would get you the most patient exposure, but would also be the most difficult to manage with a full-time school schedule. I’ve done it and it can be done, but it’s difficult. Lastly, there are many miscellaneous jobs that you can do as an EMT. Sporting events, concerts, marathons, and many other public events often have EMTs present. For a full range of possibilities in your area, contact your local ambulance services, fire departments, and hospitals and ask for information on working or volunteering as an EMT.

Work or volunteer?

Depending on what’s available in your area, you may need to decide between working or volunteering as an EMT. Volunteer gigs are usually more flexible with your schedule and are less demanding. They also look good on an application because you can count them as volunteer hours. Sometimes they may even pay a small stipend, but it won’t be enough to pay the bills. On the other hand, working as an EMT can net you a decent earning (upwards of $20/hour in some areas), but is generally more rigid and time consuming. As a rule of thumb, the more money you want to make, the busier you’ll be and the harder it will be to mesh work and school. I found working in an emergency department to be very fun and exciting at first, but as my school schedule got harder, I started getting more burned out. Conversely, my volunteer gigs have always been flexible and easy to mesh with school, but I have earned little or no income. Consider the pros and cons of both.

Conclusion

Becoming an EMT – and working or volunteering as one – is a great activity for the pre-med student. It’s an EC that will boost your application and provide you with an unmatched level of patient care experience. On top of that, becoming an EMT is doable for a pre-med student and can make for a great, school-compatible job or volunteer EC. Being an EMT doesn’t need to stop after undergrad, either. Some medical students keep up their certification and continue working or volunteering during medical school.

Some final words of wisdom: it’s important that you pursue becoming an EMT only if you are legitimately interested in the experience. It’s a fairly big commitment and becoming an EMT for the sole purpose of enhancing your application will likely lead to disappointment. Being an EMT isn’t for everyone, but if it sounds interesting to you, I encourage you to look further into it. Opportunities vary greatly by region, so check out your local state EMS agency, community colleges, universities, ambulance services, fire departments, or hospitals for more information on EMT education and employment in your area. There are also many links below with more information on becoming an EMT. With a little research and planning, you could be helping patients and getting great experience as a pre-med EMT!

References:
National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT)
List of state EMS agencies
National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians (NAEMT)
Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration EMS.gov (NHTSA)
National Association of EMS Physicians (NAEMSP)

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19 Responses to “The Pre-Med Guide to Becoming an EMT”

  1. skj says:

    What do career EMS professionals think about pre-meds using their chosen profession as a stepping stone to doctorhood?

  2. CJ says:

    It’s much better to do research and publish papers (with MDs) than to do some stupid EMT gig. Papers will follow you throughout your career and are very beneficial when you apply for residency and beyond. The EMT option seems very short sighted and doesn’t even give you the option to ask for a letter from a real doctor. Total waste of time.

    • MDNukem says:

      Except that all EMTs work under a medical director (you know, a “real doctor”), and if you work for a significant amount of time you may even get to work WITH that physician on certain cases. Medical directors are often very invested in the EMTs that they supervise, since an EMT is, legally speaking, acting under the MD’s authority/license.

      It doesn’t take a genius to see how such a close relationship could lead to a very strong letter of recommendation.

  3. bc says:

    Total waste of time. Doctors don’t need hands on experience with patients and they’re certainly never put into high pressure, life or death situations. It’s stupid to have an idea of what patient encounters are like before you enter the healthcare field. EMT’s never meet doctors on the job, they only drop patients off at the ER 3 or 4 times a day. Get an EMT certification and use it, don’t be the idiot who thinks having an EMT is the same as being an EMT.

  4. John says:

    Plenty of EMS providers go on to become nurses, doctors, RTs, PAs, etc. It was a great experience for me before med school and starts to make you think about independent decision making in the framework of protocol driven medicine. Research is great, but medicine is still mostly about patient care. If you find you don’t like caring for patients then perhaps medicine is not for you. You also get a valuable look at the settings in which your patients live and some of their social situations. This gives a future med student some insight when caring for patients.

  5. CM says:

    As a current EMT student (and pre-med) I can truly say this has been the best decision for my extracurriculars thus far. I have learned how to handle almost every type of medical/trauma emergency and I’ve been able to practice it in the field. I am currently doing an vast internship at three major hospital ERs in my area as well as working calls on two major ambulance services in my area. It has been an invaluable experience.

  6. Uhhh says:

    Not be to rude but ‘CM’ you’re an EMT, you haven’t learned .000001% of any medical/trauma. Vast internship, EMT is a 120 hour course? Lets not play up.

    CONS-

    What a waste of time being a EMT, no company, unless they’re are really struggling will knowngly hire someone for 2 months during summer.

    Cost of getting everything is way to expensive for using it a few times 2 months out of the year.

    You get paid more working at McDonalds.

    12-48hour work weeks

    That spot is better saved for someone looking to go to medic or fire

    The scope of an EMT basic is a step above Boy Scout first responder.

    PROS-

    Women like the uniform

    Discounted food

    If anyone tells you that being an EMT will help them clinically in med school, they’re lying. Even being a paramedic wont do much, you will be a pro at a few basic procedures and maybe reading ekgs.

    • bc says:

      Im glad you like our uniform, “Uhhh”

      Not only will you get discounted food, but many cops will forego writing tickets because they know EMT’s keep them alive.

      Clinically speaking, a few basic procedures and reading EKG’s is a lot more than what you probably learned at McDonalds.

      • Uhhh says:

        Never worked at McDonald’s but did 5 years on an ambulance. Obviously you haven’t thinking a paramedic procedures (that a basic can do in some states) will be any help

    • John says:

      It’s not about getting ahead in med school. It is about having experience with patient care and dealing with people in their environment, seeing people at their worst, and only having one other person (usually) as backup. Even if its for a brief period it can be a valuable experience. After 10 year in EMS as “just” an EMT (worked through undergrad and med school) it has impacted my daily practice as an EM resident. When someone comes in via EMS I know what they went through to get there and what they contributed to that patient’s care.

      • MDNukem says:

        Indeed, Hofstra SoM even goes so far as to require their students to become EMTs, the intent being that it fosters their communication and hands-on skills.

  7. sLaughter says:

    For me, becoming an EMT allowed me to take on a health-related leadership role, to volunteer in the ER, to do ride-alongs with the fire department, and also to help people during happenstance situations that arose in the community. Being an EMT made me stand out in positive ways, giving me a leg up in securing these opportunities. And the survey of pre-hospital emergency care gave me a brief (120hr) introduction to what problems emergency physicians have to deal with, which was nice.

  8. pattr says:

    I worked as an EMT for a year in college before going to medical school (I’m now a 4th year). I took the course during winter break my junior year – it was an intensive 3 week course every day including weekends from 8-5. I am definitely glad I did it. There is this whole other realm of healthcare I didn’t know about called ‘prehospital medicine,’ which is what happens before people can even get into the hospital to be seen by doctors. A lot of prehospital medicine deals with stabilization, quick thinking and actions, and decision-making based on limited information about the patient.

    Being an EMT lets you practice a lot of skills important to being a physician: patient rapport, clinical judgment, documentation, professional interactions with other healthcare providers. It also makes you think about things independently – YOU are the provider for your patient from the time you arrive on scene throughout that ambulance ride until you transfer care to the ER.

    I’d highly recommend this route to the pre-med student! I met some of my best friends during my EMT years (EMS ppl are amazing) and made a lot of unforgettable memories.

  9. foremount says:

    I’m an EMT and am working on my pre-med requirements. I understand some of you thinking being an EMT as a waste of time because as an EMT, our scope of practice is hinder by the national, state, and county standards. However, I see this as practice because when I become a doctor, my scope of practice will be limited by my chosen hospital and their insurance company. Doctors get sue for not providing the standard diagnostic test if the hospital thinks it cost too much money. So what do they do? They send that patient to another hospital to a doctor who will perform the substandard test. It happens! Being an EMT does set you up to realize early in your medical career that medicine has its politics. Other than that, being an EMT helps me connect to people as they depend on you to save their life or the lives of their loves one. Don’t get me wrong, we all know that there are med students who don’t have any social skills but they are in med school, and we will still call them doctors when they finish. As for money, being an EMT will not pay you well, but for me, it about the experience and continuous ability to learn.

  10. CJ says:

    From somebody who has already walked to walk (starting internship in a competitive specialty in July) I think it’s important to have a clear goal as what you want considering the competition is becoming fiercer every year.

    If you are confident that you have already have secured a med school spot, wanted to become an EM doc / anesthesiologist (specialties not super competitive yet), and want to learn more about what it’s about and hone emergent pt management skills, then by all means go for EMT. Note, EMT is not relevant for the vast majority of medical specialties. Most physicians don’t deal with emergent cases outside their specialty / organ system. These skills can be learned very quickly and having an EMT background does not help.

    If you are dead set you want to go for competitive specialties, it’s important to work with chairman / program director of the department. You are trying to achieve 2 things here. (1) publish papers that will strengthen you residency application, make you look academic orientated. (2) establish rapport + trust with the chairman / PD, who will rank you later. Get LOR from them. Which looks better? A strong letter from the chair of XYZ or a strong letter from some private practice guy in the middle of nowhere?

    If you want to learn clinic, do some clinical research, and they will let you shadow them in the clinic, OR etc.

  11. JoeDavola says:

    I’m positive that actual work as an EMT (which would need to be far more involved than just working in the summer) will be far more useful for working as an actual physician than any amount of time spent in a lab with mice and rats. Most physicians do not do lab work. Most deal with patients. As an EMT, you will see patients. In the lab, you will not see patients. Sure, research is very important to medicine, and sure, many specialties use research as a way to choose who they want in their program, but lets be real – hours in a lab will NOT teach you how to communicate with a patient, it will not teach you how to empathize, it will not teach you how to break bad news, it will not teach you how to function in chaotic situations, it will not bring you into the homes of people in a neighborhood that you may not otherwise even think of entering. For medical school, research is largely little more than a surrogate marker for one’s willingness to subject themselves to something they do not care about AND then lie as they profess that they were interested and will be interested in the future (as long as it gets them in to medical school and then in to some residency). The lab is useless for a typical physician. Physicians are not trained in labs or to work in labs. They are trained to see patients. The best research experience anyone could have would be consenting patients, which is something a typical physician may actually have to do (or oversee). The benefit of working in the capacity of an EMT, or RN, or CNA, or whatever is that you learn to interact with real patients. I went into medical school with 5 years of paramedic experience in 911 and critical care transport setting, having worked urban to rural. I can say whole-heartedly that my experiences have been beneficial, especially in the third year, and even in some of the courses in the first 2 years. And another upside, I can still pick up work and make some money when I have time off from med school (and I get paid pretty well, too).

  12. Jimbo says:

    I’m a 4th year medical student and a former EMT. It’s not worth your time. Something like 90% of your time will be spent transporting old people from the nursing home to the hospital. The other 10% of the time it might get interesting, but as an EMT-B, you really aren’t allowed to do anything. MAYBE the paramedic will teach you how to do IV lines, but I don’t think that’s even allowed in most states.

    I agree with the above comments. Spend your time getting published. Personally, I think it’s a bunch of ego-stroking BS, but program directors eat that stuff up for some reason. Or better yet, do well on the MCAT and go on vacation.

  13. JC says:

    CJ is my hero. Keep bein’ the awesomest awesomie that medicine has ever known, brah.

  14. CJ says:

    JC, don’t hate the player, hate the game. Seriously though, you cant underestimate personal relationships. It’s like that for every profession out there.