It’s no secret that hospital and emergency room (ER) visits can be costly. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, nationally the average cost of hospitalization is $9,600 and the average cost for an ER visit for the top 10 most common conditions is $1,233.
When experts examine ways to reduce healthcare costs, they often look at ER usage as a place to realize savings.
“So many patients end up in the ER because of simple — but frightening — mistakes, like mixing up medications or missing timely treatment for an infection,” says Pat Coyne, vice president, Ambulance Services at North Memorial Health Care.
In light of this, North Memorial launched an innovative community paramedic program to prevent hospitalizations and expensive ER visits. The program, which began two years ago, removes emergency-trained paramedics for one or two days per week from their hectic routine of racing to the scene of accidents.
Instead, paramedics make scheduled visits to the homes of frail and elderly patients, or those with chronic conditions like diabetes. A typical patient serviced by the program is someone who may frequently go to the ER, but may not have a way to receive follow-up care — or may not have anyone to take care of them once they’re home.
“Many of these patients are not home-bound, so they don’t qualify for home health benefits. However, they still need some medical care at home,” added Coyne.
With one call from a primary care physician or a referral from the ER, a community paramedic can administer lab tests, take vital signs, give a general assessment or follow up on hospital discharge orders. Since paramedics are armed with medical training, years of experience, and are used to entering people’s homes with care and respect, they have a unique set of skills for this kind of work.
Community paramedics do not work as solo care provides. They also are aligned with physicians, pharmacists, care coordinators, dieticians and any other health professionals that have a role in the patient’s care. This coordination allows the entire team to address long-term chronic conditions and collaborate on solutions, which helps improve health and reduces costs.
The program has proven to be a success. To date, community paramedics have completed more than 2,500 visits and served nearly 300 patients. Patients who received a community paramedic visit after an initial emergency department or inpatient admission showed a 50 percent reduction in these types of encounters three months after the initial community paramedic intervention.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the program’s success — and a true testament to the strength and impact the community paramedics are making in the community — has been the steady flow of thank-you letters North Memorial receives from its patients.