Augmented Reality and Safe Spaces for Exploring Medical Errors in EMS

by Allen Watson

The tones drop. You get to the rig, lights and siren scream out. You’re on your way to a 5-month-old baby. Dispatcher says its an “unknown medical” call.

You get on scene and are met by frantic family members. You and your partner get into the house and the mother is crying. In between her sobs she’s begging you to save her baby. When you finally get to the child, you see that it is seizing. Then it stops. There’s nothing. No movement and no breathing.

This is the first time you’ve ever handled a call like this. 

You’ve only been an EMT for two weeks.

Training wasn’t like this. It wasn’t this real.

EMS professionals are good at their jobs. They are dedicated to what they do. Saving lives, comforting people, and staying calm in emergencies are all part of the daily routine. Training is intense and extensive. 

But it can be better. 

Medical errors occur in every medical field. The nature of the business means that there is high stress and amazingly difficult decisions must be made, sometimes very quickly. Since EMS professionalized its standards decades ago, the medical error rate has dropped significantly. 

But it can always be better. 

A 2015 study from Johns Hopkins reports that medical errors account for more than 250,000 deaths annually, putting them as the third leading cause of death in the US. It is safe to say that if there are that many medical errors in a controlled hospital environment, then there are certainly medical errors in the uncontrolled, unpredictable pre-hospital setting.

Every EMS professional, whether an EMT or paramedic, should have a no-error goal in mind every time they go on a call. The way to get there is through training and experience.

Augmented reality can help reach that no-error goal.

While you may think of augmented reality as technology relegated to video games or something that is only relevant to kids, you need to understand that it is much more than that. EMS has always been about integrating new technologies, and augmented reality is one that is a game changer.

Virtual reality has been used in EMS for years now, but has been relegated to places that don’t quite give EMS professionals a realistic environment. Even with VR headsets, professionals are in a controlled setting, often in a classroom with fellow trainees and instructors. This is not real life. It is important that EMTs and paramedics, both new ones and veterans, train in situations that simulate what they will experience on a daily basis. 

Augmented reality does that. No longer are we destined to be stuck in classrooms talking about what it will be like on a scene. We don’t have to simply listen to an instructor tell us that our make believe patient is developing symptoms. 

“The patient has a blood pressure of 90/50,” says the trainee.

“You now notice that there is significant bruising and discoloration in the lower left abdomen,” responds the instructor.

Every EMS professional knows the drill. There is a dummy in front of them and the instructor changes the scenario as we do our initial and ongoing patient assessments. We respond the way we know they want to hear. But does this really fully prepare us? Will this type of training help us reach a no-error goal when it comes to patient care?

It is not likely that it will.

With augmented reality, we can now see those symptoms develop right in front of us. Not only will it be in front of us, but it can take place in a field, a house, or in the back of the ambulance while it is moving down the road. EMS professionals will be responding to the situation just like they would on a real call. That lower left abdomen bruising and discoloration from the above scenario will look real and we can respond to possible internal bleeding. Our adrenaline may increase because we are really there and we are much closer to performing as we would on a real call. 

This is real practice. It is practice that also gives us experience.

Augmented reality allows the user to wear goggles, like the HoloLens, that overlay a training simulation into the area around us. EMS professionals can now train with realistic, changing scenarios in their regular working environments.

Why does this matter?

The more we train in situations that mimic real life scenarios, the less likely we are to make medical errors. The fear and nerves of working in high pressure situations can be greatly reduced by training with augmented reality. No longer do EMS professionals have to be told verbally that they need to ensure scene safety and that they get their personal protective equipment ready while preparing to evaluate a patient. Now all of that is visualized.

Now they can experience all of that in front of them. Patient assessments can be done while you see changes in front of you. Vitals change, you respond. A patient stops breathing. You make a wrong call and an error you make worsens the simulated patient’s situation. That’s okay. It was training and you’re learning and now much less likely to make that error again because you’ve seen in real time what happened. The training was more real than anything you’ve experienced before thanks to augmented reality. Now you are more prepared for real life situations.

The number one way to reduce medical errors is through practice, experience, and creating a culture of constant and never-ending improvement. Knowledge is one thing, experience is another. We train the best we can so that when we are faced with a situation, we know what to do. Through experience, treating patient after patient, we get better.

We make less errors. 

With augmented reality, EMS professionals can stay on top of their game. Treatments change and new technology can alter how we provide patient care, but great training is always needed.

The future of pre-hospital training has arrived. With augmented reality, training is more realistic than ever. It can prepare your students or personnel with experience beforehand that will be invaluable and help to reduce medical errors. 

Ultimately, this technology helps you be your best in moments where it counts the most.


Allen Watson is a writer from the Carolina coast. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in teaching. He was an EMT-Intermediate for nearly a decade and served as assistant chief of an EMS agency for four years. You can contact him at