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Onondaga County sending non-emergency calls to nurses to cut ER visits

Dispatchers at the Onondaga County 911 center can send non-emergency calls to a nurse navigation team
Ellen Abbott
Dispatchers at the Onondaga County 911 center can send non-emergency calls to a nurse navigation team

Onondaga County is hoping to ease overcrowded emergency rooms in central New York by putting nurses on the end of certain calls to 911.

The county has hired a company out of Texas to take non-emergency medical calls in what’s called a nurse navigator program. County Executive Ryan McMahon said the goal is to prevent unnecessary emergency room visits.

“We really need to eliminate the folks who don’t need to go to the hospital. This helps do that,” McMahon said. “Right now, with the stress on the health care system, we can’t have those things happening anymore, and we think this is a step in the right direction.”

County officials say an average of 20 calls a day to 911 are from people requesting an ambulance, but have minor medical issues. Local 911 dispatchers, who come across these non-emergency medical calls, will rout them to a Global Medical Response Nurse Navigation team.

"The nurse clinically triages them to ensure they're low acuity and navigates care appropriately, said Lisa Edmondson of Global Medical. “The nurse does have the ability if something comes out in the story that creates a higher acuity level to send them back to dispatch. So they will get an ambulance transport in those scenarios."

Other alternatives could be a telehealth visit, or transport to an urgent care center via a ride-sharing service. Edmondson said this works for things like minor injuries or illnesses. This can eliminate some unnecessary trips to the ER.

"Essentially, emergency rooms have served as primary care providers for so many people in the community,” said McMahon. “And we’re taking that sliver of care and it frees up capacity for our emergency rooms and our ambulances."

The program has already started. On the first day one patient received a telehealth visit, three went to an urgent care center, and seven got ambulance service.

Julie Corn, Onondaga County Commissioner of Emergency Communications/911 Julie Corn expects at the outset, this could reduce the number of ambulance trips to the ER by 10%.

“This isn’t going to solve all those problems, but it’s going to help,” said Corn. “And that 10% is going to grow over time."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.