EMS Continuing Education in the Age of the COVID Pandemic

Licensed emergency medical service (EMS) professionals must continually sharpen their skills and update their knowledge to maintain proficiency and licensure. This is often done through a series of regional and state conferences, such as the State of Jefferson EMS Conference, the Eastern Oregon EMS Conference and the Newport EMS Conference. In the age of a global pandemic, these conferences were canceled to prevent the spread of the disease. This left first responders and their agencies with a gap in continuing education (CE) that presented impediments to renewal of state and national licensure, as well as NREMT certification. Not being able to access this critical requirement to practice had the potential to adversely impact first responders, the available EMS workforce and ultimately the communities for whom they serve during a pandemic.  


The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) Emergency Medical Services and Trauma Systems (EMS/TS) program staff foresaw the consequence of canceling EMS conferences in Oregon. These regional conferences draw approximately 450 participants per year, and provide live, high-quality education from local, regional and national speakers. The EMS/TS’s solution? Host virtual conferences utilizing a webinar-based platform.

The virtual conference flyer.

EMS/TS staff contacted conference committee staff and discussed the opportunity to collaborate on a virtual conference. All of the conferences agreed and a list of speaker and topics were collected. Speakers were contacted and agreed to present; all generously donated their time and expertise. Agendas were created, links to webinars for each presentation were built and the invitation for the first OHA Virtual EMS Conference was born. Within 10 days of the original concept, the invitation was emailed to over 20,000 EMS professionals and stakeholders in Oregon. The link to the virtual conference invitation was clicked on 3,778 times and shared widely through social media and EMS related webpages. Most clicks (2,492) on the link were from shares on Facebook.

Less than a week after the conference brochure was distributed, EMS/TS staff hosted the two-day virtual EMS conference that included 10 speakers, both local and national, presenting on subjects as diverse as Traumatic Brain Injury to Sewing a Culture of Excellence. The format was a moderated didactic lecture, with questions collected in real time by facilitators, which were then posed to each speaker to answer.

Over the course of the 10 lectures, 1,140 different people attended, accruing 5,741 hours of continuing education. State and NREMT license holders across the country were able to claim CE hours from this conference as “live, non-distributive education” because it was taught in a live format, where students and instructors could interact in real time. Attendees did not pay a fee for these CE offerings. If they attended the conferences in person, they would have paid anywhere from $160 – $200 for a two-day course.

By partnering with the committees of three canceled conferences to provide CE in this format, several opportunities were captured that might not have otherwise occurred. The virtual sessions allowed EMS/TS staff to highlight these regional continuing education retreats and encourage attendees to support next year’s offerings. Speakers were able to present live, timely and relevant CE and were recognized for their willingness to support Oregon’s EMS providers. Attendees were introduced to EMS/TS staff, orienting them to the mission of the program. Having EMS/TS staff host the virtual conference on webinar-based platforms meant work that could be accomplished from home offices during the pandemic.

An after-action review of the virtual conference found the following strengths and weaknesses. People were able to attend for free, respect physical distancing, were able to still cover their districts if they were to receive a call and were able to view recordings of the presentations after they originally aired. Unfortunately, people were not able to network the way they typically do at conferences, vendors were not able to promote the latest and greatest emergency equipment and products, and attendees had no way to commemorate the event in the form of memorabilia. EMS/TS staff learned to ask more registration questions during the second conference to obtain demographic information of attendees. The GoToWebinar platform was very beneficial in regard to issuing continuing education certificates, as that is done automatically. Staff created blank rosters to for people viewing in a group. They were instructed to fill out the roster and keep it for their records, along with the conference brochure to prove CE. Follow up CE certificates were not created by hand for those who were not registered. This saved and immense amount of time for staff. Attendee engagement was not verified other than simple attendance. In the future, a follow up quiz or survey for knowledge verification is something the EMS/TS staff is considering.

Due to the overwhelming support from speakers and popularity of the first conference, EMS/TS staff were able to organize a second virtual conference that was held two weeks later. The agenda and registration were distributed and shared widely by other state EMS offices, NASEMSO, The Oregon Office of Rural Health, Reddit, Facebook and other social media sites. Registrations were received from 39 states, with heavy concentrations in Oregon and North Dakota. International registrants signed on from 10 countries, including Poland and the Philippines. Over the course of the second virtual conference’s 11 lectures, 9,104 hours of continuing education were provided, again at no cost to attendees.

Registration questionnaires provided demographic information for over 7,000 attendees, from the second virtual conference.

In total, the OHA Virtual EMS Conferences included 19 speakers from across the United States, providing 14,845 hours of continuing education to EMS professionals in 10 countries, at no cost to the participants.  Due to the success of the conferences, the Oregon State Trauma Conference, which had previously been canceled, was converted into a virtual conference using the same formula with a small charge for physician CME. In anticipation of the continued need for physical distancing due to COVID, Oregon’s largest fall EMS conference with a general attendance of 350 providers is also going virtual. Conference organizers and educators from other state health systems, local organizations and staff from within OHA have reached out to EMS/TS program staff requesting information and guidance on how to implement and host their own virtual presentations.

With the COVID-19 pandemic likely to smolder on for at least two more years, virtual education may become the new normal. Although the EMS/TS program was able to replicate moderated didactic lectures that make up a large portion of many conferences, hands-on skill labs, and other interactive forms of learning were only narrowly explored. One presenter was able to integrate psychomotor medication administration by requesting attendees have simple equipment available to them during the lecture, which was met with resounding praise and appreciation in the post-survey. Future challenges will include development of more interactive and hands-on content, to enrich remote learning and engage kinesthetic learners.

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