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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!
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)