Not Just Anything

Langauge, Nomenclature & Terminology in Paramedicine

· Professional,Call to Action

Words by Steve Sunny Whitfield

Recently, while I was working with another paramedic at a remote clinic, a critically ill patient was brought in. As the patient was carried in someone asked, “Which one of you is a doctor?”

My colleague replied, “Neither. We are just paramedics.”

It was at that very moment I decided that this reference to being ‘just’ paramedics needed to stop.

These people did not care that we were ‘just’ paramedics. In fact, they were relieved. The patient was brought in and the expectation was that we would provide professional clinical care…and guess what? We did provide professional clinical care to the patient.

We might not be doctors but we are certainly not ‘just’ anything. Most paramedics that I know have studied (or have been studying) for close to a decade to increase their knowledge and refine their skills so they have degrees, graduate diplomas and masters degrees to inform their practice.

Where does the reference to being ‘just’ a paramedic come from? As an adjective ‘just’ can mean being morally right and fair (i.e., a just society).

As an adverb ‘just’ can mean very recently (i.e., I've just seen that). But it seems that ‘just’ is also used in wide variety of informal phrases such as:

  • just a minute = wait
  • just about = nearly; almost
  • just as well = for the best, thankfully
  • just help yourselves = go ahead
  • just so = precise
  • I am just… = I am only; I am simply; I am merely

The connotation from referring to oneself as “I’m just a paramedic” is that “I am only, or merely, or simply, a paramedic” and therefore it diminishes the role significantly.

Interestingly, the origin of the word paramedic is inexact. The Latin prefix para- means beyond, next to or beside and the Latin base word medicus means physician – hence paramedic means next to physician. Over the preceding years though, the word paramedic has undergone a metamorphosis to now mean something entirely separate and distinct as a profession.

Although a paramedic in today’s world is an independent health care professional, there remains some ambiguity around the role. To clarify this lack of precision, a recent attempt to define what a paramedic is/does in Australia was published. However the result was a four-sentence blend of confusing and vague descriptions of what we are and do. It was no wonder we continue to be ‘just’ paramedics.

In most cases, people call a paramedic for urgent or immediate help. They don’t call for a doctor because the paramedic is the conduit between the person needing assistance, and the doctor who will provide more specialised treatment and advice. And therein lies what we do. We are a vital and valuable conduit in a health care system and our important and vital role is reduced by statements such as ‘just’ a paramedic.

If our role is to be given due respect, we have to recognise and respect that our own knowledge and skills are extensive and wide-ranging in a diversity of situations. The language by which we refer to ourselves must change so that we garner the respect of the community due to our profession. So the next time you hear a colleague refer to themselves as ‘just’ a paramedic, remind them of what we are and what we are capable of doing.