What Starman is Saying About the Future of EMS

We have seen the last photo to be transmitted directly from the cherry red Tesla Roadster belonging to the electric car manufacturing CEO, Elon Musk, that is being driven through space by a dummy named Starman while listening to David Bowie tunes. That is clearly the sort of historic snapshot that will not fade any time soon. More importantly, it is developing a new picture in my mind of an image that belies the future of EMS here on earth.

This “PR stunt for the ages,” as the BBC put it, was conceived by Elon Musk who is also CEO of SpaceX, a private American aerospace manufacturer and space transport service. He is a South African-born billionaire entrepreneur and founder of Paypal (in addition to Tesla and SpaceX) who has manufactured the most powerful rocket on earth as a stepping stone for carrying cargo and passengers to colonize Mars. And almost as if to show his prowess, he designed his rocket to have parts that land upright on targets after separation from the main rocket so they could be reused in future launches. In case  there was any doubt before, Musk can definitely claim to be a space visionary now. Until earlier this month, all of these ideas were considered to be the indisputable domain of science fiction. So what is the connection to EMS? Bear with me.

As I was growing up, I followed the Apollo missions between 1961 and 1975 that ended up taking humans to the moon. Okay, I wasn’t actually born until 1964, but even as child I could recognize the historic importance of that “one small step” Neil Armstrong took that eventually slipped mankind beyond the surly bonds of earth during the Space Shuttle program of the 80’s. Long before video games supplanted the imagination of childhood, my friends and I rode a nearly-fallen, old tree poised perfectly to take young dreamers into the stars to explore unknown worlds. Our only hope of reaching the inky black of space was to be an astronaut. And it was NASA that held a monopoly on those dreams.

The world is very different today and so is NASA. The government space agency is no longer the only game in town. In fact, since the retirement of the Atlantis shuttle in 2011, NASA has been hitchhiking space rides with the Russian government and private companies. The government employees that met President Kennedy’s challenge “to do the hard thing,” with less computing power than I carry in my pocket, has now been upstaged by a billionaire blasting his own sports car into space for a unique photo op. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. Space is about science. It is about the good of all humanity. The private sector is not supposed have the right stuff! Had NASA let me down?

Now. Let’s talk about EMS models. Sure, “if you’ve seen one EMS, you’ve seen one EMS”; but the common thread is that we serve the public. And only the public sector has the best interest of all people at heart, right? Wait, or it is only the fire service with their selfless devotion to helping others that can claim the legitimate right to save lives? Or, maybe it can only be the volunteers who truthfully don’t do it for the money. It certainly can’t be the minions of a for-profit company. Their only motivation is greed. “You call, we haul, and that is all.”

I used to think there was a right answer for modelling an EMS, a single best practice that universally applied. With all that we have experienced, there had to be a right answer. However, one thing Starman helped me see is that our answers don’t always fit when we ask the wrong question. Space travel is simply a means to an end. The goal Musk set for his SpaceX team was not to just build a record-setting rocket, but to design a means to build a human colony on Mars. The goal that President Kennedy set was not to beat Russia into space, but to put a man on the moon. Given these great missions, I am disappointed by the level of discussions we often have in EMS. We focus on the details of programs to get them right – often to the exclusion of a coordinating plan. We expect that working out these details will lead us to the right end.  

Do we have a “moon shot” challenge in EMS? Hopefully it is more than building new programs or perfecting existing models of delivery. Every EMS organization has a mission statement, but is it something that can really guide us or is it simply something to make us feel good about what we already do? Does your organization share a vision of what we truly hope to accomplish through improvement and lay out how different we want our service to look when our tour is over? Building a community paramedicine program works is some settings, but shouldn’t necessarily be owned by EMS everywhere. To some agencies, the thought of patients being dropped off at the ED by an Uber rideshare is a serious threat. For others, the core challenge is CMMS reimbursement rates.

When we focus on program details we find more differences with other services than commonalities. Where we lack an understanding of an actionable vision, we find very different goals depending on specific employee roles. Successful businesses share a common, actionable vision and each individual learns how their tasks help to make that vision a reality. Ultimately, our daily job is really little more than touching the lives of patients. The moon of our shared quest, therefore, is not a model for deployment, is not the creation of a universal program, it is really about the effective care we give to each and every patient. The details of the programs must grow from that understanding. The vision must be set to allow every provider to correct the course of change rather than focus on blindly applying protocols. 

I used to think there was a simple formula, a best practice that universally applied, but then I took a look for the moon of our profession. Like Neil Armstrong said in July of 1969 when he stood on the surface of his dream and gazed back toward earth and said, “I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” Just a few years later, Alan Shepard had his turn on the lunar surface. His remark was, “when I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the Moon, I cried.” But probably the best statement came during an interview with Apollo 14 astronaut, Edgar Mitchel, when he said “from out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

What Starman is teaching me is that any dummy can ride in an expensive rig, the trick is to go somewhere important and do something meaningful.

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