EMT vs. Paramedic: What’s the Difference?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

EMTs and paramedics both save lives, but what they’re qualified to do and their role during an emergency aren’t the same. Read on to find out how these important roles differ and how you can join them.

[Featured Image]:  A female paramedic, wearing a white uniform and a stethoscope around her neck, is standing in next to an ambulance, in front of an emergency room entrance.

Watching them arrive on the scene of an emergency, EMTs and paramedics can appear to perform many of the same duties: both provide life-saving care, transport patients in ambulances, and keep their cool under difficult circumstances. Yet, there is a meaningful difference between EMTs and paramedics. If you’re considering a career in emergency medical services but aren’t sure what the difference is between an EMT and a paramedic, then this is the article for you. Here, you’ll learn how EMTs and paramedics differ from one another, their overall job outlook, and what you need to do to become each one.

EMTs and paramedics: the difference explained

Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) provide life-saving care to patients at the scene of an emergency and during transportation in an ambulance en route to a hospital. EMTs are qualified to assess critical illnesses and injuries, provide first aid treatment, and perform basic life-saving health care. 

Paramedics are more highly trained EMTs capable of more advanced medical procedures, such as providing oral and intravenous medication, monitoring electrocardiograms (EKG), and performing tracheotomies. Paramedics provide care to patients as they enter hospitals and emergency rooms from ambulances. 

What is EMS? 

Emergency Medical Services (EMS), is the system of medical first-responders who provide patient care during critical health emergencies, such as strokes, auto collisions, and cardiac arrests. EMS professionals are employed by private hospitals and fire departments and are dispatched by 911 operators who direct them to medical emergency sites where they provide life-saving care and transport patients to medical facilities. 


EMT vs. paramedic salary and job outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of EMTs and paramedics is expected to grow by 11 percent between 2020 and 2030, leading to 20,700 new job openings each year [1]. As of May 2021, the BLS notes the combined median salary for both EMTs and paramedics was $36,930 per year [2]. The exact salary that you can expect to make as an EMT or paramedic, however, will likely be dependent on your work experience, education level, geographic location, and the local job market. Typically, paramedics can expect to earn more than EMTs due to their additional training and experience. 

Should you be an EMT or a paramedic? 

Whether you decide to join EMS by becoming an EMT or a paramedic depends entirely on your own aspirations and personal goals. To become a paramedic, though, you must first become an EMT, which means that you will have time to consider whether or not you would like to advance your EMS career even further. 

Often, individuals who have been working as EMTs for an extended period of time will decide to advance their skill set by undergoing the additional training required to become a paramedic. 

Becoming an EMT or Paramedic 

In order to become a paramedic, you must first become an EMT. While the exact steps you must accomplish for each position will vary from state to state due to different legal requirements, the general steps that you will need to take should remain the same. Here’s what you need to do to join each of these professions:

How to become an EMT

To become an EMT, you’ll need the right training and qualifications. Here are the steps you’ll likely need to take: 

1. Meet the prerequisites to join a program. Generally, most programs require that applicants are at least 18 years of age, possess a high school diploma or GED, and pass a background check. The exact requirements might vary from program to program, though, so make sure to check before applying. 

2. Join an EMT training program. You’ll need to join an EMT program to work as an emergency medical care professional. Typically, these programs provide approximately 170 hours of training and cover such topics as identifying life-threatening illnesses and injuries, administering CPR, and splinting injuries. 

3. Become a national registered EMT. Once you’ve completed your training, you can take the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) exam, which consists of both a written and psychomotor exam. Those who pass become nationally registered and receive an EMT certificate. 

4. Get licensed. Like other medical professionals, EMTs must be licensed by the states in which they practice. The exact requirements will vary from state to state, though, so make sure to check with your state’s EMT requirements first. 

Read more: What Does an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Do? Duties, Salary, and More

How to become a paramedic

The path to becoming a paramedic is similar to an EMT but requires additional training, experience, and licensure. Here are some of the steps you’ll likely need to take to become a professional paramedic: 

1. Gain work experience as an EMT. In order to become a paramedic, you must first become an EMT. Typically, paramedic programs require that applicants have at least six months of prior work experience as an EMT, so make sure to get at least six months of professional experience before applying to a program. 

2. Gain prerequisite qualifications. To qualify for paramedic programs, you will likely need some required qualifications, so take time to research them before applying. One of the most common requirements is that applicants possess an American Heart Association’s Basic Life Support  (BLS) card. 

3. Join a paramedic program. Once you have the requisite EMT work experience, you will need to complete an accredited paramedic program. Typically, these programs can provide anywhere from 1,200 to 1,800 hours and can take anywhere from six to 24 months to complete. Topics cover topics like anatomy and physiology, traumatic injuries, and cardiology. 

4. Become a nationally registered paramedic. After you complete your paramedic training, you can take the NREMT paramedic exam, which consists of both a written and psychomotor exam. 

5. Gain state licensure. Like other health care professions, paramedics must be licensed by the state in which they practice. Contact your state licensing department to see what you must do to gain licensure in order to practice professionally. 

Read more: What Does a Paramedic Do? (And How to Become One)

Prepare for your career 

Whether you’re just starting out on the EMS career path or looking to advance your skill set, Coursera has a flexible, online program for you. 

The University of Colorado’s Become an EMT Specialization will introduce you to the fundamentals of emergency health care, such as caring for stable and unstable patients before they get to a hospital and identifying time-sensitive diseases and traumatic conditions.

The University of Michigan’s Anatomy Specialization, meanwhile, introduces course takers to the fundamentals of human anatomy, including the major organ systems, their functions and relationships within the body.

Related articles 

Article sources

1. BLS. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: EMTs and Paramedics, Job Outlook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/emts-and-paramedics.htm#tab-6.” Accessed August 30, 2022. 

2. BLS. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: EMTs and Paramedics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/emts-and-paramedics.htm#tab-1.” Accessed August 30, 2022.

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