EMS 12-Leads – The Standard of Care

I’m going to make a statement:

Every ambulance in the United States should have the capability to obtain a 12-lead EKG. Regardless of the service’s level of care, be it Basic, Intermediate, or Advanced Life Support, every ambulance should have the ability to get a 12-lead. There are no exceptions in my opinion. It is the standard of care and every ambulance should be able to do it.

In the last few years, the 12-lead EKG has not only revolutionized EMS care, it has influenced the care given throughout the entire healthcare system. Bringing it to the forefront of urgent and emergency care has helped not only save countless lives but also has improved the ongoing quality of life for countless patients. The 12-lead EKG provides invaluable insight into a patient’s true underlying medical complaint and is useful in diagnosing a whole host of potential medical conditions. If you are an EMT or paramedic, you should be able to obtain a 12-lead.

I’m saying this because right now in communities both urban and rural there are ambulances that still do not have this essentially lifesaving capability. The problem crosses all divisions in the level of care and there is no excuse for this fact. Obtaining a 12-lead is an essential piece of the diagnostic puzzle for many patients. It can make the difference between a proper diagnosis and misdiagnosis that can have a lasting detrimental effect on a person’s entire life. There are many solid positive reasons that support EMS agencies expending their critical resources to obtain this capability and few, if any reasons for them not to.

If your agency does not currently have the ability to acquire a 12-lead EKG, here are some reasons that you can take to the powers that be for your service or use as information to show your community for fundraising activities. In my opinion, these things help show the solid reasons why you should begin offering the service as soon as possible.

  1. Better knowledge drives better medical care – The most common EMS treatments for chest pain can mask essential diagnostic signs and symptoms that help pinpoint cardiac causes of the complaint. Things like Nitroglycerine, Oxygen, narcotic analgesics, and aspirin can normalize the waveform complexes on an EKG tracing after only a few minutes. EMS providers used to begin treating the symptoms of chest pain before acquiring a 12-lead when the technology was not widely available. This caused a broad cross section of patients who were truly experiencing a heart attack that needed to be treated emergently to have 12-lead tracings that were normal upon their acquisition in the ER. The ERs then needed to rely on the laboratory values of the patient’s cardiac enzyme markers to make a diagnosis. This often times added 12 to 24 hours to a patient’s time to proper diagnosis and sometimes resulted in a heart attack that was missed entirely. EMS 12-lead EKG acquisition helps change that. EMS providers can obtain a symptomatic 12-lead EKG at a patient’s first point of entry to the healthcare system when their symptoms are at their worst which will oftentimes show diagnostic information that 12-leads obtained later in their care will not. This exponentially increases the diagnostic sensitivity of the overall assessment of a patient and can change their entire path of care, resulting in more appropriate treatment being given sooner. This can save more of the patient’s heart tissue and increase their quality of life for the rest of their life. In addition, proper care can decrease a patient’s length of hospital stay, saving millions in healthcare costs when viewed as a sum total.


  1. 12-lead EKGs increase the safety of EMS care – Certain types of heart attacks such as ones occurring on the front, underside, and the right side of the heart can cause nitroglycerine administration to be dangerous. EMS providers of all levels give nitroglycerine for chest pain. However, when given to a patient experiencing a right-sided, inferior, or anterior heart attack that affects the right ventricle of the heart, nitroglycerine can cause a severe drop in a patient’s blood pressure that can prove detrimental or even fatal for some patients. A 12-lead EKG can pinpoint these types of heart attacks with a fairly high degree of sensitivity and can help prevent the harmful drop in blood pressure. Heart attack victims need nitroglycerine and like all medicines that can be harmful when not properly used, EMS providers need to be able to see the 12-lead and share it with physicians at the receiving hospital to increase patient safety. Increased safety equals better patient care, decreased liability, and better patient outcomes overall.


  1. If you can provide oxygen, you can take a 12-lead – All paramedic ambulances should be able to obtain a 12-lead EKG with no exceptions, however so should all ambulances of any level. EMT-Basics and EMT intermediates functioning on an ambulance service of any level should be able to get a 12-lead. The first arriving care providers who will be beginning treatment on a potential heart attack victim need to be able to obtain a symptomatic 12-lead. While BLS and ILS providers cannot and should not interpret the 12-lead EKG and should not change their care based upon it (unless ILS protocols allow), they may transmit the information to the receiving hospital and/or responding ALS intercept and may act upon the orders they receive from their medical control. Obtaining the symptomatic 12-lead is essential for proper diagnosis of heart attacks. The first arriving care provider needs to get one, regardless of their level of care.


  1. It can determine the proper hospital to take a patient – Patients having heart attacks need hospitals that can take care of them. The current gold standard of heart attack care is generally agreed upon by physicians to be “Percutaneous Coronary Intervention” (PCI), also known as a “Cardiac Cath.” This is a surgical procedure where an interventional cardiologist threads a tool into the arteries that feed a patient’s heart through the vessels in their leg. The cardiologist can then open a blocked coronary artery and allow the area of the heart being damaged by the heart attack to receive blood flow again. The sooner this is done, the better. A symptomatic 12-lead EKG obtained by EMS can make the difference between a patient being transported to a patient where this surgery can be immediately performed rather than to a hospital that may not have this capability or does not have it immediately available. This makes the difference between immediately appropriate treatment that saves both lives and heart tissue and treatment that may not be the best for the patient. Inappropriate treatment costs a lot more money when it results in a patient needing transport from a facility that cannot properly care for them to one that does.

These are just some of the reasons that all ambulance services of any level should be able to obtain 12-lead EKGs in the field. It is an essentially lifesaving tool and is the standard of care. There are few, if any dangers or drawbacks to using the tool and multiple strongly supported reasons to do so. EMTs and Paramedics that do not currently have the capability should get it as soon as possible, and the communities that they serve should support them with the funding and resources to do so. The medical directors of communities where EMS 12-lead acquisition is not currently possible should write protocols for the practice and should support development of a system of care that properly uses the critical information obtained to make the most positive impact in patient care.

This is an area where EMS truly makes a documented, lasting impact in quality care and where EMS development is driving the healthcare system as a whole. Make sure your service and your practice is a part of it. Do the best by your patients and communities. Save more lives. Help more people get better.

If you have questions, I offer myself for any information you may need. My e-mail is proems1(at)yahoo(dot)com.

  • Amen! North Carolina allows it at the EMT-B level and with a grant from the Duke Foundation they are working to roll out 12-Lead ECGs for every 911 service in the State.

    We just began acquiring them on my BLS industrial fire brigade (with a locked-out Philips MRx) and in the neighboring county a large number of the BLS rescue squads already acquire 12-Leads.

    At this point the 12-Lead ECG has become the standard of care for EMS and really should be one of our baseline “vital signs”. At some point we need to integrate our cardiac monitors and our ePCR systems so that we can compare old ECGs in the field. But I digress….

  • Question: Do most of your readers know how the correct lead placement for a right-sided 12-lead?

    A useful way to remember what NOT to give nitro to: “Don’t give nitro to AIR!”

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