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

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Working as a paramedic is an exciting and rewarding career path. Learn more about the role of a paramedic, what training and education are necessary to start a paramedic career, and more with this comprehensive guide to a career as a paramedic.

[Featured Image]: A woman with short dark hair, is wearing a white paramedic uniform. She has a stethoscope around her neck. She is standing in front of an ambulance at the entrance of the emergency room of a hospital.

Paramedics respond to emergencies, usually via an ambulance or other emergency vehicle, and provide any necessary medical care on the scene. They may continue providing medical care, keeping patients as stable as possible on their way to a hospital or other medical facility.

A paramedic career is exciting, rewarding, and fast-paced, and it requires you to think on your feet. It's the ideal health care career for someone who doesn't like to stay in one place. This comprehensive guide can help you understand and explore the role of a paramedic and what it takes to become one, from education and training to the human skills you'll need to possess to excel at the job.  

What does a paramedic do?   

Paramedics are first responders. When someone is sick, injured, or requires transportation to a hospital or other medical facility, paramedics are part of the medical team that arrives on the scene first. They evaluate the situation, provide any necessary medical care, and then, if necessary, use an ambulance or other emergency vehicle to help that person get to the right medical professionals who can help them further. Throughout the entire situation, they must ensure the person remains stable. 

Paramedics may treat all sorts of patients, ranging from someone having trouble breathing to someone in a serious car accident. In many cases, a person's life may be at stake. Most paramedics drive or ride along in an ambulance, but some work with critically ill patients in helicopters and airplanes. Some may also ride along on fire trucks. 

What are the primary duties and responsibilities of a paramedic?

For most paramedics, each day will bring something new. Where you work can also impact your daily duties and responsibilities. On average, they might include:  

  • Responding to emergency 911 calls 

  • Evaluating patients at various scenes (such as car accidents, in their homes, or in public places) 

  • Providing first aid as necessary 

  • Providing life support as necessary 

  • Transferring patients from the scene to a stretcher and into an ambulance

  • Transporting patients to hospitals, clinics, and other medical facilities 

  • Communicating with doctors and nurses about a patient's condition 

  • Keeping good notes about a patient's condition 

  • Cleaning and maintaining supplies inside an ambulance  

When it comes to providing medical care, paramedics may face any range of medical or trauma situations each day. These might include:  

  • Performing CPR and other cardiac support

  • Taking vital signs

  • Helping someone with a blocked airway by performing quick respiratory procedures

  • Setting up an IV

  • Stabilizing head, neck, and back injuries, as well as broken bones 

  • Cleaning and bandaging wounds 

  • Delivering babies in emergency situations 

  • Administering medication 

Paramedics vs. EMTs 

It is often a point of confusion that a paramedic and emergency medical technician (EMT) is the same job, but paramedics are actually advanced EMTs. To become a paramedic, you must first become an EMT. Paramedics and EMTs may work together on the same emergency response team, but paramedics are the lead members with the most education and training.

EMTs learn how to assess an emergency and determine what type of medical treatment is necessary. They can also administer basic treatments, like CPR or splinting a broken bone. If you are an EMT who wants to become a paramedic, you'll take part in more extensive training that builds on these skills and teaches you how to do even more to help save someone's life.  

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

What qualifications and certifications are required to become a paramedic?

To start your journey toward becoming a paramedic, you'll need to be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma. You may also need to be trained and certified in CPR. If you meet these qualifications, you can sign up to take an EMT course. Keep in mind that the state where you live or plan to work must approve the course. Your EMT training course may also be called EMT-Basic or EMT-B.  

During your EMT or EMT-B training, you'll learn how to handle situations that require basic first aid or life support. You'll learn how to assess a scene and help determine what kind of medical care a person needs, and you'll learn how to transport a patient safely and quickly to a hospital. You will most likely learn how to deliver a baby, splint broken bones, how and when to administer medication, how to administer oxygen, and how to save someone in cardiac or respiratory distress.  

It's also recommended that you get into good physical condition while training to become an EMT. After all, you'll need to be fast, and you'll be lifting people, occasionally while in a stretcher, on a daily basis.  

Once you've completed your EMT training, you'll need to become a licensed EMT. You'll do this by taking an exam issued by the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT). During the exam, you'll be tested on your cognitive abilities and your psychomotor skills. Your state may also require you to take an exam. 

Once you've become an EMT, it's essential to gain work experience. Some paramedic training programs may even require that you have up to a year of experience working as an EMT. Finding a job as an EMT can also help you determine if you enjoy the fast-paced career of being a first responder.  

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Learn more about becoming an EMT.

After you've gained some experience and met any other requirements, you'll want to apply to an accredited paramedic program. You can often find these at technical and vocational schools and community colleges.

Some universities also offer programs, and some facilities offer emergency response training. Before you're accepted, you may need to pass an entry exam or an interview with a program director or other school official. Criminal background checks and drug screenings may also be required. Some schools may require you to take some college-level courses in fundamental topics, like math, English, or biology. 

During this time, you'll advance your medical knowledge and skills by learning how to complete tasks like starting an IV. You may also learn more specialized skills, like how to administer pediatric or obstetric care. Your time training to become a paramedic will usually involve classroom work, clinical practice, and field experience.  

Once you complete your paramedic program, you'll need to become licensed to practice in your state. Each state sets its standards, so always check ahead to ensure you're on the right path. In some cases, you may be required to pass a state exam and an exam offered by the NREMT.  

How long does it take to train as a paramedic?

How long it takes to train as a paramedic can vary based on where you live, which program you choose, and your career goals. Your initial EMT program can range from 120 to 190 hours, and you can typically complete it between six months and one year. After you complete your EMT training, it's recommended that you work as EMT for six months to one year, so that means one to two years of education and work experience before entering your paramedic training. 

Your paramedic training course can take up to two years and last from 1,200 to 1,800 hours. You may even complete the program with an associate degree to your name in some cases. In total, your path to becoming a paramedic can take between three and four years. You may also be required to update your training from time to time.  

What other skills do I need to become a paramedic?

In addition to medical training, you must possess certain human skills if you want to become a paramedic, like an ability to work under pressure and make quick decisions. The job is both physically and mentally demanding, so you'll need to be strong. Take a look at some of the other essential skills you'll need to possess. 

Compassion

Compassion is a trait required to work in health care, but it's crucial for a paramedic career. The role of a paramedic is to assess what is often an emergency and determine what type of medical care is required. However, you'll also find that you're dealing with patients and their families who are often scared and upset. The more compassionate you can be when working with them, the better they'll feel.  

Communication 

Communication is so vital for paramedics that it is often recommended they enroll in some postsecondary communication courses while training.

First, you'll be working with a team, which might include other paramedics, EMTs, and firefighters. You may also encounter firefighters, police officers, and other first responders on the scene of an accident. You must be able to communicate with them effectively. You'll also need to listen to and communicate clearly with your patients and their loved ones.

Finally, when you transport a patient to the hospital or other medical facility, you'll often have to communicate their condition to the doctors and nurses on the scene.  

Problem-solving 

Problem-solving is crucial because you will often find someone's life is in your hands. When you take inventory of their symptoms or injuries, you'll need to think quickly and determine the best possible treatment to keep them stable or even save their lives. The decisions are in your hands with your partner or team members.  

Where can I work once I’m qualified as a paramedic?

Paramedics often work on ambulances, but you have many options of which you may not be aware. Paramedics may also work long or unusual hours. Some work in 12- or 24-hour shifts: some work nights, weekends, and holidays. You may even find that your schedule varies from week to week. Take a look at some places where a paramedic might work: 

  • Firehouses: Many paramedics work out of their local firehouses and respond to 911 calls in their communities. They may ride along on fire trucks or drive separate ambulances to emergencies.    

  • Medical flights: Some paramedics undergo additional training and work on medical flights. In these situations, they often work on helicopters with patients who require critical care and transportation from a rural location to a hospital or from a smaller hospital to a more advanced one.  

  • Hospitals: Some hospitals employ paramedics to work in their emergency rooms as emergency technicians. Over the last few decades, this has been happening more frequently to help with understaffed emergency departments.   

  • Ships: There are often opportunities to work as a paramedic aboard cruise ships. Here, you might work alongside a doctor and nurse.   

  • SWAT teams: If you're interested in law enforcement and a paramedic career, you might consider joining a SWAT team. You'll find yourself on hand for dangerous police activity to treat anyone who is injured. 

  • On location: In some cases, you may work as a paramedic on-site at specific events. These could be one-time events, like music festivals, or you might work at a vacation resort or a stadium.  

How much do paramedics earn? 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), paramedics and EMTs earn an average of $36,930 per year or $17.76 per hour [1]. Where you work can also impact your salary. For example, paramedics who work in urban areas tend to make more than in rural communities. The level of experience you have and the type of employer you work for can also impact how much you earn. 

Career progression

Paramedics start as EMTs, but once they've completed their paramedic training, they may choose to advance their career or move on to a new career. This might involve completing the training required to become a flight medic or work with a SWAT team. Some choose to go on to work in emergency departments as emergency technicians. 

Often, the physical stress and schedule of working as a paramedic can grow old after a certain period of this time. For this reason, many people choose to continue their education while they work and eventually choose another health care career, like becoming a registered nurse or physician assistant. Some even go on to complete medical school and become doctors themselves. Working as an EMT and paramedic provides you with the human skills and medical background needed to advance in almost any direction in the health care field. 

Get started today with Coursera

The need for paramedics is expected to grow at a fast pace of 11 percent between 2020 and 2030 [1]. Ready to get started on your path to an exciting, in-demand paramedic career? Start by training to become an EMT. Visit Coursera to learn more about the University of Colorado's Become an EMT Specialization

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "EMTs & Paramedics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/emts-and-paramedics.htm#tab-1." Accessed March 29, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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