The Pandemic Exacerbates the ‘Paramedic Paradox’ in Rural America

by | Apr 7, 2022 | Health

Even after she’s clocked out, Sarah Lewin keeps a Ford Explorer outfitted with medical gear parked outside her house. As one of just four paramedics covering five counties across vast, sprawling eastern Montana, she knows a call that someone had a heart attack, was in a serious car crash, or needs life support and is 100-plus miles away from the nearest hospital can come at any time.

“I’ve had as much as 100 hours of overtime in a two-week period,” said Lewin, the battalion chief for the Miles City Fire and Rescue department. “Other people have had more.”

Paramedics are often the most highly skilled medical providers on emergency response crews, and their presence can make a lifesaving difference in rural areas where health services are scarce. Paramedics are trained to administer specialized care from the field, such as placing a breathing tube in a blocked airway or decompressing a collapsed lung. Such procedures are beyond the training of emergency medical technicians.

But paramedics are hard to come by, and a long-standing workforce shortage has been exacerbated by turnover and resignations related to pandemic burnout.

Larger departments are trying to attract paramedics by boosting pay and offering hefty signing bonuses. But small teams in underserved counties across the U.S. don’t have the budgets to compete. Instead, some ru …

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