Where does the healthcare continuum really begin?

Where does the healthcare continuum really begin?

Where does the healthcare continuum really begin?

With prevention?

In the home?

With the Primary Care Provider?

In the Emergency Department?

Although an argument can certainly be made for any of the four choices above, I’d like to challenge your opinion and perspective with a different answer…the continuum for many begins with Emergency Medical Services (EMS).

This past year I had the privilege to be included in two standard setting and forward thinking discussion forums– AHRQ’s 2010 Annual Conference and HCIE Innovators Event as well as Hope Street Group’s Policy 2.0: Using Open Innovation to Reinvent Primary Care Project. Both of these events offered diverse perspectives from diverse participants in academia, corporations and all levels of government and localities who gathered to discuss and make recommendations to improve the health care system. Interestingly, the first responder perspective of EMS was only a footnote in these discussions. I believe that policy makers and leaders within healthcare all too often fail to look outside their sphere of influence and familiarity for answers or more importantly the critical questions. That said, I know this minimalization was not intended or planned, but a result of historical processes and comfort levels.

The numbers…

EMS contributes 15% or 17.25 million patients to the nations 123.8 million annual Emergency Department (ED) visits (CDC, 2008), yet Fire, EMS or Law Enforcement respond to over 240 million 911 calls per year (NENA, 2009). It’s difficult to accurately breakdown the national percentages of 911 call types, but upwards of 60% of EMS calls are generally considered low-acuity or non-emergent. To put this into a local perspective, the City of Tucson AZ with a population of approximately 530,000 (2005) generates approx. 79,000 Fire and EMS 911 calls per year, 84% or ~67,000 of these are medical in nature and 60% of those, ~46,000 require only Basic Life Support (BLS) care (TFD, 2009).

So what does that really mean? It means that the 911 system provides a substantial safety net for the Nation’s healthcare system. While this should come as no surprise, the volume of patients utilizing EMS, Emergency Departments and the 911 system continues to grow. Over 15 years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Health Resources and Services Administration joined with leaders from the EMS community to put forth an EMS plan that would require significant collaboration with acute care, primary care and public health. This provided one of the earliest, nationwide, use of the scale-up-and spread model and was published as the1996 EMS Agenda for the Future (NHTSA, 1996).

The past…

To implement that vision and professional template, EMS has continued to grow it’s service provision model from one that was historically created for stabilization and transport of the acutely ill and injured; one that was set-up to intervene only when patients needed emergent support; one that operated in relative isolation from other health care and community resources; one that was not involved in the business of ensuring social service follow-up and one that did not have a working knowledge of community health care providers and regional health care organizations (NHTSA, 1996).

The present…

Today, EMS is integrated with other health care providers, public health and public safety agencies to provide community-based healthcare and management. EMS agencies and providers are involved in activities related to prevention education, illness and injury risk, acute illness and injury care, follow-up, treatment of chronic conditions and community health monitoring. This vision is also shared by the Injury Response Division of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (NCIPC/CDC) and the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) who have called for a better understanding of roles and collaboration between Public Health and EMS through their Appleseed Project initiative (CDC, 2004).

The reality …

As you can see, EMS has developed into more than a group of fire departments, rescue services and ambulance companies. While providing these additional and collaborative services, EMS remains the public’s emergency medical safety net.  Looking back to those 240 million 911 calls and the 17.25 million EMS-to-ED admissions, it’s clear that a significant amount of health assessment, care and triage occurs outside the hospital walls. In fact, there are no other healthcare providers that see patients in their own home or living environment quite like EMS. The “scene assessment” which is a fundamental EMS skill reveals more information about a person, their living conditions, their health, their support system and their coping mechanisms than any other assessment tool.  How many Primary Care providers, case managers or health plan administrators have this perspective into their own patient’s lives?

From where I sit with over 30 years of experience as an RN in Maternal-Child Health and EMS, I see several important questions that need further discussion and clarification before we can begin to understand how to move forward in improving the healthcare of our Nation.

  • How can we better educate individuals to utilize the 911 system for acuity appropriate reasons?
  • How do we encourage the use of Primary Care practitioners for non-emergent and urgent medical and injury complaints instead of defaulting to the approach of “if this is a medical emergency, please hang up and dial 911?
  • How do we share the burden of after-hours and weekend low-acuity patient needs?
  • How do we facilitate better communication and collaboration between EMS, public health, acute and chronic care case management, behavioral health and community services?
  • How do we move patients calling 911 for non-emergent or non-healthcare reasons into a public or human services system that will better meet their needs?

Communication, collaboration, connectivity, consistency and caring are all functions of healthcare, yet as the patient numbers and range of patient complaints increase, we all need to utilize each others skills, knowledge and expertise to meet the needs of our patient population. Reaching out to our colleagues may be the first step toward improvement, integration and understanding of our healthcare system.








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