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Houston Hiring Tele-Nurses To Help 911 Dispatchers

Christine Pye, for Texas Healthflash, June 10, 2008

In an effort to reduce ambulance responses to non-emergency 911 calls, the Houston City Council voted last week to hire tele-nurses to work with dispatchers. At least two nurses will work around the clock, giving everything from advice on first aid to assistance with finding a doctor to helping callers seeking medical aid but not experiencing a true emergency.

Over the next five years, the city of Houston will spend $6.8 million in contract with non-profit Harris County Healthcare Alliance to provide the needed nurses, who will be hired through subcontractor CareNet of San Antonio. Both the HCH Alliance and CareNet will carry additional liability insurance, up to $3 million per claim, to provide coverage for the program.

City officials are confident that the program will help save money over time, as well as potentially reduce strain on local emergency rooms. According to a 2006 study by the University of Texas' School of Public Health, the city spends an estimated $50 million annually responding to non-emergency calls. These are calls that could be handled by a doctor's office and that make up more than half of the approximately 750 emergency calls received daily by the Houston Fire Department.

The tele-nurses will begin by responding to about 20 calls a day, and then over time fielding up to 75 to 100 calls daily. Tele-nurses will respond to basic first aid questions, as well as refer callers to health-access "navigators" at the local non-profit Gateway to Care, who will in turn assist callers with scheduling needed appointments and arranging for necessary transportation. Houston is one of the first U.S. cities to try the tele-nurse program for 911 calls.

Christine Pye