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Survey of Emergency Medical Technicians' Ability to Cope with the Deaths of Patients During Prehospital Care

  • Robert L. Norton (a1), Edward A. Bartkus (a1), Terri A. Schmidt (a1), Jan D. Paquette (a2), John C. Moorhead (a1) and Jerris R. Hedges (a1)...



Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) find that the death of patients in their care is stressful.


Random sample of certified EMTs in one state (Levels I–IV).


A blinded, self-administered survey was sent to a random sample of 2,500 EMTs. Demographic data obtained were: level of training; hours worked each month; population of area served; age; gender; number of deaths per year; training for coping prehospital deaths; and availability of protocols and on-line medical advice for out-of-hospital deaths. A five-point, Likert scale was used to rate the frequency of perceived stress experienced by EMTs in specific situations and the routine practice for notification of survivors. Univariable analysis was performed using Spearman's Rank correlation, Kruskal-Wallis test, and Mann-Whitney U-test. Multivariable correlations were performed using forward and backward step-wise logistic regression analysis. A significance level of 0.05 was used throughout.


There were 654 respondents with a mean age of 35.5±8.3 yr; 83% were men. Their highest level of training was: 4% EMT-I, 43% EMT-II, 18% EMT-III, 33% EMT-IV. They saw an average of 9.6 deaths/year and spent an average of 20±17 minutes with survivors. 62 % found treatment of a patient that was dying or died in their care was commonly a stressful experience. Factors that made notification of the family about the prehospital death emotionally difficult included: fewer hours worked/month; working in a smaller community; lower level of EMT training; female gender; and fewer deaths seen during the previous year. The same factors were associated with general emotional difficulty in treatment of a patient who died during prehospital care. Online [direct] medical direction by physicians was common (73%), but did not lessen the difficulty of notification. It did reduce the emotional difficulty for specific clinical situations. Written protocols for not attempting resuscitation were common (66%), but only 44% had protocols for termination of resuscitation. Resuscitation of the clearly dead for the benefit of the family (10%) or for the EMT (5%) was practiced infrequently. Most (67%) respondents had some formal training in dealing with death and the dying patient. Such training did not correlate with less difficulty in notification of survivors or in coping with the deaths of patients in their care.


EMTs perceive they have emotional difficulty when prehospital deaths occur and survivors must be notified. Less experience and a lower level of EMT training correlate with more difficulty in coping with patient death. Protocols and on-line [direct] medical control can provide support for the EMT in coping with out-of-hospital deaths. Most notification of survivors is handled by EMTs with formal training to cope with patients that are dying or who die during prehospital care.


Corresponding author

Division of Emergency Medicine, Oregon Health Sciences University, 3183 S. W. Sam Jackson Park Road, Portland, OR 97201-3098 USA


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Presented at the 6th Annual NAEMSP Meeting and Scientific Assembly in Houston, Texas, June, 1990



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