Ambulances transport patients thousands of times for non-emergencies

By: Nate Morabito / JEMS

JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – Ambulances responded to roughly 4,000 calls in the last year for what are generally considered non-emergencies, according to EMS impression logs from Sullivan and Washington counties.

The records show someone called in need of an ambulance ride almost 11 times a day for health problems that are usually thought of as non-emergent, including fevers, non-traumatic pain and bowel obstructions during the last fiscal year. If you consider the average cost per trip is $274, that means it cost more than $1 million to transport those patients.

“It certainly is a strain on the system,” Washington County-Johnson City EMS Chief Dan Wheeley said.

His agency, along with Sullivan County EMS, will soon train employees to become community paramedics as part of a pilot program. Wheeley says that will allow crews to make proactive house calls before someone calls 911.

“It will cut down on our repeat users,” Wheeley said. “If we can redirect those patients to a more appropriate facility, it leaves more ambulances available to respond to other emergencies.”

EMS impression logs show 2,161 rides, more than half of what generally are considered non-emergent trips, were for non-traumatic pain, while 686 were for what turned out to be no complaints and at least 367 were for fevers. The numbers include trips to all locations, including emergency rooms.

The EMS agencies say after paramedics are trained later this year, crews in both Sullivan and Washington counties hope to begin practicing community paramedicine in early 2018.

“If we can follow up with them and make sure that they’re following their discharge plans, they’re getting their medications like they’re supposed to and have the resources at home they need to be successful, it’s better for them and it’s better for the entire health system,” Chief Wheeley said.

The chiefs in both agencies say community paramedicine is an effort to try and figure out why people are calling 911 and come up with a more effective and less costly alternative for continuing care.

“It’s basically someone helping them stay on top of their health care,” Sullivan County EMS Chief Jim Perry said. “We’re checking for fall risks, hazards in the house, making sure they’re following their discharge orders or doctor’s orders, making sure they’re taking their medicines correctly, looking at their diet. We’re not there to compete with home health. We’re just there to help fill the gap.”

Tennessee only recently approved the certified training program. The chiefs say very few agencies in the state have implemented similar programs.

“It’s really about the patient,” Chief Perry said. “Most of these patients don’t want to be stuck in the hospital. If we can keep them at home or get them care somewhere else, it’s good for them, it’s good for the health systems and it’s good for EMS.”


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