Houston Fire Fighters Launch a Telemedicine Initiative

Apr 16, 2015 by

Out of the 318,000 incidents logged last year, the Houston Fire Department determined that only 13% of them were real fires. As many people called in to report a headache, laceration, cold, paper cuts, or spider bites, the fire department seemed more like a call center for medical emergencies, instead of fire emergencies.

Furthermore, Tyler Hooper, an ambulance driver from Houston confessed that of the 5,000 calls his firehouse received in the past year, many were regarding non-urgent situations.

“We make a lot of runs to where it’s not an emergency situation. And while we’re on that run, we hear another run in our country, it could be a shooting, or a cardiac arrest, and now an ambulance is coming from further away and it’s extending the time for the true emergency to be taken care of.”

Hooper’s ambulance company caters to a low-income, predominantly uninsured demographic of Houston. However, even the families with coverage do not always shave access to a regular primary health care provider or transportation to reach their appointments. Unaware of the clinics that take patients without appointments or insurance, many of these residents call 911 because that is “just what they have always done or what they have been taught.”

In efforts to break this cycle, city officials launched a program that connects these residents with a doctor, thru the city EMS system. Project Emergency TeleHealth and Navigation (Ethan), enables fire fighters to video chat in affiliated doctors during their calls. The physicians provide patients with advice remotely and assist them in scheduling appointments and transportation to nearby clinics. Over the past few years, many Texas-based hospitals have adopted telemedicine programs, which have enabled patients to maximize their quality and access of healthcare.

Emergency Medicine Professor at Baylor College of Medicine and director of Project ETHAN, Dr. Michael Gonzales says, “I think a lot of people are very surprised that they can talk to a doctor directly and have been very happy with that.”

By diverting the flow of patients to primary healthcare clinics, ambulances can continue to remain in high supply to respond to urgent crises within the neighborhood.

Dr. Richard Bradley, chief of the Division of Emergency Medical Services and Disaster Medicine at the University of Texas Health, strongly supports the project. “One of the advantages of having an emergency physician on the other end of the line is you’ve got someone who is best suited to be able to look for the subtle indicators of what may be an emergency.”

This community paramedicine and telemedicine approach not only reduces the traffic to the emergency room, but also provides a secure alternative. Above all, initiatives like this strive to reinforce the importance of using EMS appropriately.


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