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What Is EMS?

Emergency Medical Services, more commonly known as EMS, is a system that responds to emergencies in need of highly skilled pre-hospital clinicians.

But EMS clinicians aren’t just the first healthcare practitioner on the scene; they’re often the first to identify a healthcare crisis in a community and act as a critical component of emergency management and, increasingly, a practitioner of community healthcare.

EMS is most recognizable by its vehicles, helicopters and workforce, which respond to emergency incidents. But far from being simply a ride to the emergency department (ED), this system of coordinated response and emergency medical care involves numerous people and agencies. A comprehensive EMS system is ready every day for every kind of emergency, whether or not that includes going to the hospital.

Despite a robust ecosystem of its own, EMS does not exist in isolation. It integrates with other services and systems intended to enhance the community's health and safety. As seen in the graphic below, EMS operates at the crossroads of healthcare, public health, emergency management and public safety.

The principles and resources of each field are employed in EMS systems. As noted above, the emergence of a significant health problem is often heralded by its arrival in the ED. Because EMS clinicians respond to all kinds of emergencies, hazards and natural and man-made disasters, they often work side-by-side with public safety colleagues in law enforcement and the fire service, with the primary mission of providing emergency medical care.

EMS also plays a role in non-emergent medical care. Community Paramedicine (CP), also known as Mobile Integrated Healthcare (MIH), is a patient-centered healthcare model in which EMS clinicians provide care outside the emergency response system, frequently through scheduled visits in the patient’s home.

These patients are often from underserved populations without ready access to healthcare or health insurance. Community paramedics work closely with primary care physicians, social services and other preventive services, resulting in patients making fewer emergency calls for help and experiencing better health outcomes.

EMS clinicians also play an important role in mental health and behavioral health crisis services. The ideal crisis response model is an integrated service involving EMS, mental health professionals and sometimes law enforcement to provide caring, high-quality support to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. The goal of crisis services is to increase access to quality mental and behavioral healthcare for those in need.

The organizational structure of EMS, including service providers and financing, varies significantly from community to community. Prehospital services may be based in any number of settings or facilities. Regardless of the provider, the essential components of an EMS system include agencies and organizations, life-saving data, communication and transportation networks, centers and facilities, and highly trained personnel. Data is critical to informing the profession’s national commitment to evidence-based practices. In order to be ready every day for every kind of emergency, an EMS system must be comprehensive, too. Developing and maintaining such a system requires thoughtful planning, preparation and dedication from EMS stakeholders at the local, State and Federal levels.

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Last Updated: 05/16/2023