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CNM launches Community Paramedic Program

For five years, Sean Haaverson, an emergency medical services instructor at Central New Mexico Community College, has struggled to get critically needed medical services into some of the most rural areas of New Mexico.

HAAVERSON: Course will build on past training

HAAVERSON: Course will build on past training

It now looks like his efforts will pay off.

This semester, CNM has launched a Community Paramedic Program with the goal of providing those services to underserved and out-of-the-way parts of the state.

Once they are on the job, the so-called community paramedics will collaborate long-distance with city doctors. The first certificated students are scheduled to graduate at the end of the spring semester.

The concept of deploying specially trained paramedics in areas that are off the beaten track first surfaced in Nova Scotia, Canada, when a physician who had served two remote offshore islands retired in 2000 and paramedics were recruited to fill the void.

Since then, the idea has spread and is now established in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. In the United States, similar plans have been developed in San Francisco and at least four states.

Emergency medical technicians, who take one semester of training to get a license, are a step below paramedics, who must take three more semesters after their initial EMT course work. The Community Paramedic Program raises the ante yet another step, requiring the additional training that 17 CNM students are currently taking.

To qualify, a paramedic must have at least three years’ experience working in emergency services.

“We build upon that training in a kind of unique way,” Haaverson said.

The concept is to expand the role of emergency medical services workers so they can provide health services where access to physicians, clinics or hospitals is difficult or nonexistent.

According to a 2010 report by the National Women’s Law Center, New Mexico ranks 49th for medically underserved areas, followed by Mississippi and Louisiana. (The rankings include the District of Columbia.) Medically underserved areas have limited access to primary care physicians.

For some patients, limited access might be due to their hometown’s remoteness; for others, it can be due to a disproportionately low number of primary care physicians in a non-remote area. “Think of how difficult it can be to make an appointment with your primary care physician – in the city,” Haaverson said.

Besides providing emergency services, the community paramedics will be involved in preventive medicine. They will be able to access medical resources and fill other gaps in service, such as helping identify people at risk of injury, when mid-level providers and doctors can’t get to patients. “They will have a higher knowledge and greater tools” than regular paramedics, he said.

“New Mexico has many rural and medically underserved areas where the only way people receive the medical care they need is to travel hundreds of miles to Albuquerque or other populated areas,” Haaverson said. Many of the beneficiaries will likely be the elderly, those who no longer drive or don’t have access to a vehicle and must rely on someone else for transportation. The lack of services is also particularly severe for the poor.

Minnesota has run a state-wide community paramedic program for just over two years and it is helping to keep the elderly out of the emergency room. When they are not responding to an emergency, community paramedics visit people at their homes.

Depending on the situation, the community paramedic might do a blood test, call Meals on Wheels or arrange for a wheelchair ramp. They also visit patients to make sure they are following doctor’s orders and to be a general health care resource.

CNM is working with Eastern New Mexico University, which offered a class two years ago but hasn’t repeated it because of low enrollment.