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Emergency Medical Services: How Real-Life Differs from TV and Movies 

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Medical dramas for television have been around since the early 1950s, with many sources claiming CBS’s City Hospital as being the first TV series created under this genre. Over the years, medical dramas have amassed significant viewership, enough for it to survive and thrive when entertainment shifted from public television to digital streaming services. 

The healthcare workers and emergency medical technicians (EMT) portrayed in these series have to regularly deal with highly stressful, oftentimes life-and-death situations that reveal the vulnerabilities and true characters of the people involved. This premise alone is a sufficient setup for many thrilling stories.

However, the experiences of the healthcare workers and EMTs in these fictional stories don’t always reflect the realities of those who work in the field. Medical dramas are designed to entertain and often resort to over-dramatization to gain viewership, while EMTs are preoccupied primarily with saving lives. To do their job well, EMTs often have to use seemingly boring but practical strategies and tools, many of which won’t pass for good visual entertainment. Here are some of the differences between the experiences of fiction and real-life first responders and medical professionals.

EMS dispatches are more organized in real life

Time is of the essence when providing emergency medical services, so it’s important to ensure that EMT teams are dispatched in a quick and orderly manner. To do this, EMT organizations typically use computer-aided dispatch (CAD) programmes to send their teams where they are needed. An ambulance CAD system, like the one developed by Michigan-based developer Traumasoft, is an application that receives phone calls from emergency hotlines and takes note of important information, such as the patient’s situation and location as well as the availability of EMT teams. This makes it easy for an EMS organisation to send an EMT team that is closest to the patient. 

Emergency calls are not the only calls EMS have to deal with. At times, they can also be tasked with transporting non-emergency but critically ill patients from one medical facility to another. These scheduled transportation services sometimes require the same level of care and attention an emergency patient might need.

EMTs are busier than the TV shows portray them to be

Depending on the circumstances, EMTs may not have a lot of time to rest between calls. The CAD system that their organisation uses takes note of their ongoing activities, so their manager is well aware if they’re free to take another assignment or if they’re currently busy with another transport. If they’re free, they can expect to receive another emergency dispatch soon, or they can be assigned to pick up and transport a non-emergent patient from one medical facility to another. This doesn’t exactly leave them with a lot of free time as shown in TV’s character-building scenes. 

EMS organizations can also cover wide areas. If their neighborhood is sparsely populated, then they might be tasked with dealing with all of the emergency and non-emergency medical transportation needs in the area. EMS organisations have to efficiently move their teams around so that they can respond to every emergency call that comes their way. 

Most of the calls don’t involve horrifying injuries

Fatal injuries do take place, but they don’t happen as often as the dramas portray. While accidents due to traffic, farming, or industrial activities can lead to graphic injuries, these happen less often compared to seemingly mundane but equally urgent medical issues, such as cardiac arrest or stroke. In fact, cardiac arrests and strokes are the most frequent medical issues requiring highly urgent medical services.  

EMTs support other first responders too

It is quite common for EMTs work together with other first responders to meet the needs of the community. They can be present in an ongoing fire, providing firefighters and victims alike with first-aid treatment for smoke inhalation and burn injuries. They can work alongside law enforcement officers who are responding to domestic violence reports or drug overdose cases. They can also partner with community organisers and spend a day near a country fair so that they can deal with injured participants and attendees in an efficient manner. 

EMS are an essential and inseparable a part of the community, and they work with other institutions – sometimes in the background – to ensure everyone gets the proper medical attention when needed. 


While first responders and medical workers on TV and in the movies can inspire people to choose this career, those who want to become a real-life EMTs must be aware that the task requires commitment, knowledge and training, and the desire to help others. These are essential to ensuring that EMTs can fulfill their roles as one of the core pillars that holds a community’s well-being together. 

Robert Haynes did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health and well-being.

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