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EMS Scope of Practice

Editor: Stephen Mohney Updated: 9/26/2022 5:42:34 PM


Broadly defined, the scope of practice defines the healthcare services that a prehospital provider is authorized to perform under professional licensure. The scope of practice in Emergency Medical Services (EMS) is regulated by state-level licensure. To become licensed, an EMS provider must provide evidence of satisfactory completion of an accredited education program, a certification examination, and state licensure. For clarity, certification verifies a knowledge or experience base. Licensure bestows permission to perform specific duties and skills.

Each level of EMS provider has a defined scope of practice delineated by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): The National EMS Scope of Practice Model. This scope was developed based on a uniform educational curriculum. It included knowledge and skills critical to each level of care, meaning any provider with that level of certification and licensure should be equipped to perform these skills. According to the NHTSA, the EMS scope of practice encompasses "Defined parameters of various duties or services that an individual may provide with specific credentials. Whether regulated by rule, statute, or court decision, it represents the limits of services an individual may legally perform."

However, states may choose to expand or limit the scope of practice regarding specific skills. This expansion would require additional training and certification beyond the standard curriculum before licensure. Other training courses may be completed for certifications that allow for an expanded scope of practice, although this is still often regulated by states individually.

Issues of Concern

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Issues of Concern

The education, examination, and process for licensure are often state-dependent despite efforts to ensure national uniformity. In 1996, the EMS Agenda for the Future was published to provide principles to guide the continued development of EMS by obtaining input from a broad range of stakeholders.[1] This document contained 14 key components necessary for the growth and progress of prehospital care. A uniform education system was one of the key elements; this led to the publication of "EMS Education Agenda for the Future" in 2000, which recommended evidence-based education, medical direction for all levels of training, and accreditation by a national accrediting agency.[2]

The education agenda specifically aims to promote national uniformity, thus increasing state reciprocity while allowing and meeting local needs. The agenda includes 5 specific components, including the National EMS Scope of Practice Model. The other components include National EMS Core Content, National EMS Education Standards, National EMS Program Accreditation, and National EMS Certification. Leaders in the development of these components included physicians from the National Association of EMS Physicians (NAEMSP) and the American College of Emergency Medicine (ACEP), the National Association of State EMS Officials (NASEMSO), and the National Association of EMS Educators (NAEMSE) among other stakeholders.

The National EMS Core Content defines various EMS providers' content base and educational standards. This component is outlined to mimic a physician education program defining a specialty scope of practice. The National EMS Education Standards outline more specific content for curriculum development. The National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) developed the initial education plan for prehospital practitioners in the 1980s and has continued to provide the national certification exam and sponsor the standard curriculum. To ensure adherence to the national curriculum endorsed by the above organizations, the National Registry has a formal accreditation policy, which requires advanced-level education (paramedic) to be conducted by institutions accredited by the Committee on Accreditation of Educational Programs for the EMS Profession (CoAEMSP).[3]

The National EMS Scope of Practice Model, published by NHTSA, was developed based on the core content of the educational curriculum. The National Scope model outlines the recognized "levels" of EMS practitioners eligible for licensure after completing an accredited educational program, certification exam, and state licensure requirements. NHTSA recognizes 4 levels of care, each with a unique scope of practice and associated skills. These levels of care include Emergency Medical Responder (EMR), Emergency Medicine Technician-Basic (EMT-B), Advanced Emergency Medical Technician (AEMT), and Paramedic (EMT-P).

The education and skills competency is demonstrated via a certification exam. Most states utilize the National Registry of EMT standardized written and psychomotor examinations to ensure educational standardization and competence. Based on certification, each state will then determine if a license to practice may be issued. Credentialing is done at the individual agency level by the system medical director.

Clinical Significance

Remember that scope of practice is not equivalent to the standard of care. The scope of practice defines what skills or procedures a prehospital practitioner can perform. Standard of care defines properly performing the correct skill in the appropriate setting. Performing a skill outside the defined scope of practice can be considered a criminal offense. Commissioning or omitting a skill not defined as the correct skill or for the appropriate circumstances may constitute malpractice with civil liability. The level of care determines the scope of practice and does not vary between individual practitioners or clinical circumstances. The standard of care is often more variable and may be case-dependent. Concerning EMS, state statutes, rules, regulations, or licensure board interpretations define the scope of practice. The standard of care, in particular cases, is determined by considering the defined scope of practice, existing literature and evidence, and expert witnesses. The use of expert witnesses should be limited to physicians with working knowledge of and relationships with EMS practitioners, preferably those who provide medical direction services.[4]

A recent example that outlines the changes required to expand the scope of practice would include the movement in states to allow intranasal naloxone administration by basic life support providers in cases of a suspected opioid overdose. Intranasal naloxone is not typically part of the national curriculum or outlined in the national scope of a basic EMT. Due to the increase in opioid-related deaths, this skill has been added to the scope of practice by individual states.[5] This change has been particularly impactful in rural communities, where deaths related to opioid overdoses are often higher than in urban communities. Naloxone was previously limited to advanced life support providers (paramedic, AEMT), and BLS (EMT-B) providers constitute the majority of responders. One institution in Nevada has promising data showing the utility of naloxone administration by basic life support providers. Rural EMTs received training regarding naloxone administration. They received both didactic and motor skills education. All participants completed pre and post-testing. Following training, there was a statistically significant increase in scores on the post-test and increased comfort in administration.[6]

Similarly, in New England, patient outcomes were studied after the administration of intranasal naloxone, followed by administration by either basic life support or advanced life support providers. There was no significant difference in the improvement in Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) score after naloxone administration between basic life support and advanced life support providers. Basic life support providers could also identify patients for whom the administration is appropriate.[7]

Specific certifications will also allow for an expanded scope of practice relative to the levels of care outlined by NHTSA. Wilderness EMT certification and critical care paramedic certification are 2 common examples. Flight paramedics receive training beyond the core curriculum to prepare the paramedic primarily to manage interfacility transfers. These transfers involve complex patients who have already received significant medical interventions and often require transport with multiple advanced pharmacologic agents or advanced hemodynamic monitoring. More recently, interfacility transport of patients with cardiac devices such as balloon pumps or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) has become common. The National Flight Paramedic Association has a specific training program and exam. Upon successful completion, paramedics are "certified flight paramedics" with an expanded scope.[8] This expanded scope is recognized in state statute as most state EMS protocols have specific protocols for air medical transport programs.

Due to the unique nature of providers operating in the wilderness or austere environments, the National Association of EMS Physicians Wilderness Medicine Committee, with the assistance of other stakeholders, attempted to better define core educational content and levels of care regarding wilderness medicine. Operating in these conditions often requires prolonged field care, less readily available medical direction, and specific equipment constraints. The curriculum builds on the National EMS Education Standards and Scope of Practice Model. Four specific levels of care and certifications were recognized, and completion of the wilderness emergency medical responder (W-EMR), wilderness emergency medical technician-basic (WEMT-B), wilderness advanced emergency medical technician (WAEMT), and wilderness paramedic (WEMT-P) allows for the performance of specific skills when practicing in an austere environment.[9]

Disaster situations and critical events often raise the question of EMS operating outside the defined protocols or scope. NHTSA does recognize that protocol-driven care and a specifically defined scope of practice may not apply to every unique situation. The National Scope of Practice Model does allow for modification due to critical or disaster events. A classic example provided is during public health emergencies. Although the traditional scope does not include vaccine administration, advanced life support providers receive training in drawing up medicine and administering IM injections. They would be able to assist in mass vaccination protocols.[10]

Conversely, an agency medical director may limit scope lower than state or regional protocols, which occurs via agency-specific credentialing. Common themes have been identified based on geographic service area, fire-based service, volunteer, or professional services. EMS agencies in urban areas were less likely to authorize specific interventions at any level of care when compared with rural agencies. Fire-based services were more likely to authorize optional interventions and skills for EMT-B and EMT-intermediate. Volunteer agencies were more likely to authorize EMT-B interventions. Greater medical involvement increased the likelihood of any intervention for EMT-B and EMT-P.[11]



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Gulec N,Lahey J,Suozzi JC,Sholl M,MacLean CD,Wolfson DL, Basic and Advanced EMS Providers Are Equally Effective in Naloxone Administration for Opioid Overdose in Northern New England. Prehospital emergency care : official journal of the National Association of EMS Physicians and the National Association of State EMS Directors. 2018 Mar-Apr;     [PubMed PMID: 29023172]


Gryniuk J, The role of the certified flight paramedic (CFP) as a critical care provider and the required education. Prehospital emergency care : official journal of the National Association of EMS Physicians and the National Association of State EMS Directors. 2001 Jul-Sep;     [PubMed PMID: 11446547]

Level 1 (high-level) evidence


Millin MG, Johnson DE, Schimelpfenig T, Conover K, Sholl M, Busko J, Alter R, Smith W, Symonds J, Taillac P, Hawkins SC. Medical Oversight, Educational Core Content, and Proposed Scopes of Practice of Wilderness EMS Providers: A Joint Project Developed by Wilderness EMS Educators, Medical Directors, and Regulators Using a Delphi Approach. Prehospital emergency care. 2017 Nov-Dec:21(6):673-681. doi: 10.1080/10903127.2017.1335815. Epub 2017 Jun 28     [PubMed PMID: 28657809]


Catlett CL, Jenkins JL, Millin MG. Role of emergency medical services in disaster response: resource document for the National Association of EMS Physicians position statement. Prehospital emergency care. 2011 Jul-Sep:15(3):420-5. doi: 10.3109/10903127.2011.561401. Epub 2011 Apr 11     [PubMed PMID: 21480774]


Williams I, Valderrama AL, Bolton P, Greek A, Greer S, Patterson DG, Zhang Z. Factors associated with emergency medical services scope of practice for acute cardiovascular events. Prehospital emergency care. 2012 Apr-Jun:16(2):189-97. doi: 10.3109/10903127.2011.615008. Epub 2011 Sep 27     [PubMed PMID: 21950495]

Level 2 (mid-level) evidence