The Compassion Equation and a Tennessee Fireman

I think he “could” do what he did, but should he?

A Murfreesboro, Tennessee fireman, Gregory Burt posted a picture and his comments about an obese homeless woman on facebook early this month and he started a firestorm of controversy. The newspaper article and subsequent stories about the posting and the City’s “actions” have been picked up and reprinted by hundreds of other media outlets. Burt’s facebook post said,

“So the sign says homeless, but she lives in the hotel behind her. She checks in at 300+ lbs (I know we transported it). She gets food stamps and healthcare. Wondering what your TN care and Medicare/Medicaid is being used for! Tired of supporting it and others like it! Disgusting!”

The City of Murdreesboro didn’t calm the waters when they concluded the facebook posting “didn’t violate the city’s social media policy or federal HIPPA laws.” I might argue that posting her picture and confirming the fire department has transported (“it”) her – is a HIPPA violation, but I’ll leave that discussions for others.

I don’t know anything about the City of Murfreesboro social media policies, their fire department, the firefighter in question or the “homeless” woman – and I’m not a lawyer. Having said that, I believe Burt had the right to voice his opinion on a situation he clearly finds frustrating, while off duty, through social media. I don’t believe he should have done so, but I believe he can. I am not going to take Burt to task for choosing to do so, the exposure he is currently getting surely has sent the message to him and his department about what is  appropriate versus what is legal. I am not even going to be critical about his opinion, honestly I know a hundred people who might express the same opinion if asked, albeit maybe they would do so privately. But, I have to say this story highlights something about this industry that has bothered me for years…and that is a perceived growing lack of compassion among some EMTs and paramedics.

Now,  I can’t go back and provide data for any scientific study and maybe the fact that the majority of my street experience didn’t occur in Los Angeles, Chicago or any other major urban area, but, I don’t recall  the peers of my day talking about patients the way I hear medics talking about them today.

I think there is a direct mathematical correlation between how much the medic believes the patient  needs their lifesaving treatment and how respectful they are of the patient. And I think the industry need to get over it. There is no plan in the works to ensure that paramedics and EMTs will ever be asked to respond to and treat only the patients that truly need their care. In fact, if by magic EMS could respond to only the patients that truly needed our emergency, life-saving care we would run on about 5% to 7% of the calls we see today…..and most of us would be out of jobs.

I have had a number of recent speaking engagements where I have talked about the generational differences we are seeing in the workplace and the challenges that come with that age “diversity”. During my research a recent academia-based study caught my eye that is interesting at least and may explain some of the behaviors regarding how we treat some of our patients. A joint study led by a psychologist from San Diego State University and the University of Alabama finds that narcissism has increased among Americans over the past 15 years, the results suggest that the United States is poised to experience increased social problems as younger narcissists age and move into positions of power. And here’s the kicker -  One of the key characteristics of narcissism discussed in the study is a lack empathy for others.

I guess I have a couple of messages; one, if you don’t generally like people and you’re likely to get upset over running calls on patients that don’t really need your care, don’t get into this business; two, if you can’t understand that your job is far more than just  taking care of the most critically ill and injured patients, please don’t get into this business, and three your attitude about the poor, downtrodden –and yes even the system abusers- can’t help but creep into your approach and care  to other patients in general and that’s dangerous for everyone.

I have a relative who is in a treatment facility and they were talking to him about his behavior – which needed to be modified. The counselors said, “look even if you don’t believe you should act this way, fake it”. “Fake it ‘till you make it” has become his motto in changing his behavior. If you act a certain way, every day, eventually that becomes your normal behavior and you may actually start believing  in it.

Let’s all try and act with a little more compassion in our interaction with the patients we don’t really believe need our care, because they may need something from us, it takes no more effort on your part and really it’s just the right thing to do.

Steven Athey is the president of the EMS Consulting Firm, Health Care Visions. Steve has worked in the ambulance industry since 1971 and has managed large and small EMS organizations. Steve holds his undergraduate degree and his MBA from Texas Wesleyan University where he holds an adjunct faculty position in the School of Business. Steve can be reached at slathey@hcvems.com

1 comment

  1. Andrew Randazzo says:

    You’re right, it is the just the right thing to do. We have to have standards and morals to keep the line drawn between us and those we work with.

    Aside from that, they may not have a true medical emergency, but the way you treat them could be the catalyst for a suicide attempt the next time.

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