Amid Shortage, Kansas Considering Relaxing Rules on Rural Ambulance Drivers

March 11, 2019

A statewide shortage of trained medical personnel has left many rural county ambulance services having to delay hospital transfers to ensure they have enough staff for emergencies.

For example, in Norton County in northwest Kansas, the county’s 5,400 residents are served by six full-time volunteers and nine volunteers, who respond to all 911 calls and taken patients from one hospital to another.

“Sometimes patients needing to be transferred are left waiting,” said Craig Sowards, Norton County EMS director.

In response to the problem, a proposal before the state Legislature would allow drivers without medical training to transport stable patients in rural areas, which sometimes can take hours. Ambulances would still need to have one person with medical training riding in the back, such as an EMT or a nurse, The Kansas News Service reports.

Some state and local EMS officials say having only one trained person on board could be risky, and they worry about lowering standards of care in rural areas.

“Occasionally patients decline and it’s often helpful to have an extra set of hands to stabilize (patients) before they move on,” said David Johnston, president of the Kansas Emergency Medical Services Association.

Joe House, executive director of the Kansas Board of Emergency Medical Services, defended current regulations that require two medically trained workers on board, including the driver.

“We write our regulations to protect the public’s well-being and safety,” House said. “It’s either safe to do or not safe to do.”

Emergency medical services are competing with clinics, hospitals and schools for trained personnel — and offer a starting wage of only about $21,000 a year, House said.

Many rural ambulance services rely on certified volunteers. Phillips County in northwest Kansas has 84 volunteers to serve a population just under 5,400 but the number drops significantly in surrounding counties.

Pete Rogers, EMS director for Phillips County, said he can’t imagine operating ambulances without two medically trained personnel on board.

“If you have somebody that’s simply a driver and you still have two technicians in the back of the truck with the patient then, then I, I see absolutely no problems with it,” he said. “But I would be concerned if it was a non-certified person driving and only one technician in the back.”

In Norton County, Sowards doesn’t think it’s necessary to have two trained EMS workers for stabilized transfers.

“I’ve been in EMS for 20 years running transfers — maybe once in 20 years I’ve had to have a driver come help,” he said, adding allowing non-certified ambulance drivers for transfers “could help a lot.”

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