Healthcare News & Insights

How ‘community paramedics’ help hospitals

Emergency departments are consistently crowded. Patients who have fewer health resources visit the ED with all kinds of problems that may not always be emergencies. Several hospitals and health systems are trying to cut back on ED overcrowding in various ways – including working closely with emergency medical services (EMS) teams to better direct patients who have mental health issues. 

gettyimages-503137797Many patients who visit the ED are experiencing mental health crises, and hospitals don’t always have the resources to treat these patients right away.

Paramedics are helping relieve this stress in some areas, according to an article in Kaiser Health News.

Connecting patients to resources

Health systems are taking advantage of paramedics’ medical skills and have given them additional responsibility to help triage patients. These “community paramedics,” as they’re called, are dispatched after an initial 911 call indicates that a person may be having mental health issues.

The paramedics receive additional training to identify any problems patients may be having, asking them questions about their drug use, mental health histories and insurance status. Then they’re able to intervene and get them the help they need.

In some cases, patients are still transported to the hospital. But in many others, they’re referred to a psychiatric facility or outpatient clinic for treatment. One program in North Carolina has helped the state send hundreds of patients straight to specialized mental health facilities instead of to the ED.

Community paramedic programs can be beneficial to coordinating follow-up care for patients with mental health problems, lightening some of the load for hospitals and their EDs. Paramedics often follow up with patients they visit to make sure they aren’t having any other issues that threaten their health – and to remind them to take their medications.

Limitations to program

The biggest obstacle to the effectiveness of these community paramedic programs is finding available beds at inpatient psychiatric facilities.

Often, there are more patients that would benefit from short-term stays than there are facilities with space available. One medical director at an EMS provider that operates a community paramedic program in California estimated that around 30% of patients encountered this issue.

While it’s a bit easier to connect patients with outpatient care, barriers may exist to treatment here as well, particularly if patients have limited transportation options for follow-up appointments. However, some paramedics will take patients to and from appointments if necessary.

Future outlook

In an age where mental health issues are receiving a great deal of attention, working with community paramedic teams to direct patients to behavioral health facilities may be an ideal solution for many hospitals – especially since such partnerships are necessary to improve population health across the continuum of care.

With that in mind, hospitals may want to explore whether a coordinated effort between local EMS providers and their associated health systems would be feasible.

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