|Nick T. Sawyer, MD, MBA||University of California, Davis, Department of Emergency Medicine, Sacramento, California;
California American College of Emergency Physicians Board of Directors
|John D. Coburn, MD||The Permanente Medical Group, South Sacramento Kaiser, Department of Emergency Medicine, Sacramento, California;
California American College of Emergency Physicians Board of Directors
Under-Triage is a Patient Safety Issue
As reported in the Annals of Emergency Medicine in 2014, studies have revealed under-triage by paramedics when not transporting patients to AD.7 The potential for under-triage is real if there is a failure of a community paramedic to recognize a real emergency when it exists. Further, identifying non-emergent patients based on their initial presentation is hazardous. In a study by Raven et al, 11% of patients with “primary care treatable” visits required immediate intervention, 12.5% were admitted, and 3.4% went directly to the operating room emergently.8
According to Morganti et al., “Nearly all studies published to date have found significant rates of under-triage by EMS Personnel…” These investigators identified 13 research studies examining the ability of paramedics and EMTs to determine the need for transport to the ED. These studies reveal EMS AD under-triage rates from 3% to 32%. They commented that the ability of EMS professionals to safely determine nonemergency patient “has not been clearly established.” Included in these studies was one study describing a cohort of under-triaged patients, who EMS professionals felt did not require transport to the ED for care, and who subsequently required admission to the hospital (18%), including a subset who required admission to the intensive care unit (6%). These problems were attributed to EMS professionals misusing study guidelines, undertraining in proper use of the guidelines, and improper or unclear instructions within the guidelines that could result in under-triage. These studies also revealed poor agreement between EMS professionals and emergency physicians about who required transport to the ED for care. Additional training is not likely to eliminate the problem of under-triage.
Alternative Destinations will Disproportionately Affect Critically Ill and Vulnerable Patient Populations
Patients who call 911 are more likely to be critically ill, elderly, and economically disadvantaged relying on public rather than private insurance.9 The patient population that arrives by ambulance does not reflect the general ED population. Whereas a proposed estimate of 13.7% of ambulance calls could be diverted to an urgent care center based on a Health Affairs study by Weinick et al., this study reviewed all ED visits rather than the population of patients who call 911.10 Rugar et al. analyzed ambulance transports and triage category and found less than 2% of patients arriving by ambulance had a triage category of less urgent or non urgent.11 Patients with a triage category of emergent were nine times more likely to arrive by ambulance, and with a triage category requiring immediate interventions, 50 times more likely to arrive by ambulance. This suggests a vast majority of ambulance transports are appropriate. The policy of diverting 911 patients away from EDs will not target low acuity visits. Studies suggest that it may target sick, vulnerable patients who already have limited access to care, and may further limit their access to specialty care. Even though EDs certainly have problems referring patients for specialty care, or achieving consultation during the ED visit, such referrals and consultations from ADs would most likely be even more difficult, if not impossible.
In conclusion, lowering healthcare costs for payers should not come at the expense of patient safety. Limiting access to high quality emergency and specialty care may show immediate cost savings to payers, but concerns remain over the longer term expense to patients and payers in terms of overall health outcomes. To date, the literature does not support paramedic-guided diversion of ambulance patients away from the ED to AD in terms of cost savings or equivalent health outcomes. As interest grows in CP programs, rigorous research methods should be applied to validate claims that CP is safe, improves quality and lowers healthcare costs.
Section Editor: Mark I. Langdorf, MD, MHPE
Full text available through open access at http://escholarship.org/uc/uciem_westjem
Address for Correspondence: Nick T. Sawyer, MD, MBA, University of California, Davis, Department of Emergency Medicine, 4150 V Street PSSB Suite2100, Sacramento CA 95817. 2 / 2017; 18:219 – 221
Submission history: Revision received October 4, 2016; Accepted November 7, 2016
Conflicts of Interest: By the WestJEM article submission agreement, all authors are required to disclose all affiliations, funding sources and financial or management relationships that could be perceived as potential sources of bias. The authors disclosed none.
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