Houston Fire Dept. Uses Telehealth To Reduce Unnecessary ED Use

April 14, 2015 in News

In December 2014, the Houston Fire Department launched telehealth program that connects ambulance crews to physicians in an effort to avoid unnecessary emergency department visits, Kaiser Health News reports.

Background

According to a 2013 study, 40% of visits to Houston-area EDs in 2011 were for primary-care related issues, and treating those issues in the ED costed an average of $600 to $1,200 per visit — significantly more than it would cost at an outpatient clinic. Transporting such patients to the ED also can prevent ambulance crews from responding to more urgent calls.

Telehealth Program Details

To address the issue, the Houston Fire Department launched a program at all city firehouses called Project Ethan, or Emergency TeleHealth and Navigation.

The initiative equips paramedics with a tablet device than can connect a patient with a doctor via video chat. The doctor can assess the need for an ED visit remotely and arrange a visit to a local outpatient clinic, if appropriate.

The program costs more than $1 million a year, but officials hope it ultimately will lower health care costs. According to the 2013 study on Houston ED use, shifting more non-urgent care to outpatient clinics could save as much as $2 million annually.

Michael Gonzalez, the program’s director and an emergency medicine professor at Baylor College of Medicine, said that people appreciate the efficiency of Project Ethan. He said, “I think a lot of people are very surprised that they can talk to a doctor directly and have been very happy with that” (Fiebel, Kaiser Health News, 4/09).

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