ST. LOUIS COUNTY - If you have a medical emergency, you call 911. But we were shocked to find one woman alone visited Christian Hospital's emergency room 241 times in 2013.
Twenty-two patients went to Christian Hospital's emergency department, called emergency medical services (EMS), 600 times in one year. That's one of the reasons starting Monday, Feb. 3, north St. Louis County will see a huge change in how it gets its emergency medical care.
NewsChannel 5's Kay Quinn took an in-depth look at what it means for you.
THE FUTURE OF HEALTHCARE
When you hear an ambulance siren, you know medical help is on the way. Christian Hospital's EMS covers Black Jack to Ferguson, saving lives over 300-square miles every day.
On a recent Thursday, we rode with Christian Hospital EMS to get a first-hand look at what some of the calls involve. During one call, a young patient ended up being taken to the hospital. She had a true emergency.
But Christian Hospital officials say not all patients who call 911 do. The system is so efficient, the people who run it say it's created a generation used to being taken to the hospital whether they need it or not.
"Since August," said Christian Hospital's EMS Chief Chris Cebollero, "22 patients have come to the E.R., or used EMS, 600 times. And one patient alone, 150 times in a year."
These are shocking numbers that raise an important question: Are the people of north county really getting the best medical care they can get?
Cebollero says when he asked himself that question, his answer was no.
"We're taking care of what's happening right there but we're not following up with their care," said Cebollero. "We're not getting them to the specialists they need."
So starting Monday, Feb. 3, Christian Hospital's EMS and emergency department will undergo a revolutionary change. If you're having a true medical emergency, like the patient we saw, you go to the hospital. If you're not, think of it as paramedics making house calls.
"If you don't have a medical emergency, we're going to see you in the ER now," said Cebollero. "But the next time you come, we may change the focus of how you're getting the care. So I think that's the first thing" patients are going to notice."
Here's how the new system, called mobile integrated healthcare, will work: dispatchers and EMS workers will still triage calls and patients like they normally do. But once EMS arrives, if there's not a true medical emergency, one of three things could happen: a patient could be treated at home, taken that day to one of two health resource centers where their medical concerns can be addressed immediately, or given an immediate appointment with a primary care doctor.
Even transportation issues to future appointments will be addressed.
"We will over time, and I will emphasize, over time, provide them with other resources and break that cycle of coming to the emergency department," said Ronald McMullen, president of Christian Hospital.
And by doing that, Christian Hospital is hoping to create a new cycle of health care.
YEARS OF PLANNING
The mobile integrated healthcare plan has taken years of development. A centerpiece of the plan is the opening of two health resource centers, one at Christian Hospital and one at Northwest Healthcare.
Instead of the emergency room, paramedics can take people who need medical issues addressed to these non-emergency settings. They'll be open from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., seven days a week. Unlike an urgent care center, walk-up patients won't be accepted, and the plan is to eventually close the health resource centers once the demand declines.
But in the meantime, they will be used to connect people calling 911 with the immediate health care they need.
"We need to take more of a foundational approach to medicine," said Cebollero.
The goal is to treat the underlying health condition that prompts a patient to call 911. For example, a patient who feels short of breath may have few options but to call 911. A paramedic can rush to the patient's home and get them breathing easy again. If that person needs to go to the hospital, EMS would take them.
But if they don't have an emergency, under mobile integrated health care, the paramedic would get that patient to one of the health resource centers, or to a primary care physician who can prescribe a treatment regimen.
Future appointments with that doctor would be scheduled. Taxi vouchers could be given to patients without transportation. All of these steps could begin to cut the chances that patient will experience another terrifying bout of shortness of breath.
Cebollero says at least one north county physician has already agreed to provide same-day office visits for patients who call 911 and need to see a doctor, but don't need to go to the ER.
"We're happy to take care of them at the ER" said Cebollero. "But is that what they really need? And again, we want to look at those numbers and say how can we keep you out of this, out of the ER, and out of being in an ambulance? Make you healthier and enjoy your life? And I think that's what's important about this program."
REACTION FROM THE COMMUNITY
Christian Hospital recently hosted a community forum on mobile integrated health care. During the meeting, stakeholders in north county, including school superintendents, religious leaders and law enforcement learned about the new system.
Captain Troy Doyle, commander of St. Louis County's north precinct, was in the audience. He says he likes what he hears about mobile integrated health care.
"Often times, law enforcement, we have to respond with EMS on some of the calls. Some of the calls are just minor scrapes and scratches," said Capt. Doyle. "But it does take law enforcement out of service for that length of time."
Capt. Doyle says eventually, the new system could reduce the amount of time law enforcement has to respond and be out of service.
Mike O'Mara represents the fourth district on the St. Louis County Council. He's also a Florissant resident and attended the forum. He says he was shocked to hear of the number of people who repeated use 911 in north county.
"If we can whittle those numbers down," said O'Mara, "it's going to be less burden on our hospital system here in north county. I think it's very positive, not just for north county but for the entire Metro area."
But for Chris Cebollero, the chief of Christian Hospital's EMS, the goal is helping the people in north county lead the healthiest lives they can.
"As an EMS provider, I don't want to be there on the worst day of your life, I want to be there to prevent the worst day of your life from happening," says Cebollero.