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Boulder debuts program to divert 911 calls from emergency rooms

The "nurse navigation" program will soon expand to Longmont and Aurora, the ambulance company said.

BOULDER, Colo. — When people call 911 in Boulder, a Lyft driver might show up instead of an ambulance, at least in certain circumstances. 

It's a new program called "nurse navigation" that's designed to divert people to alternatives if their medical issue doesn't warrant an ambulance ride to an emergency room.

"It's kind of a win-win for everybody," Boulder EMS Administrator Jenna Steege said. "It’s a win for our community members, it’s a win for the emergency services that are providing that care to them and then a win especially in the healthcare system that we’re working on trying to keep afloat right now."

Previously, dispatchers didn't have much of a choice. If someone asked for medical help, they sent an ambulance to bring them to the ER. In industry slang, it's termed "you call, we haul." 

The nurse navigator program similarly begins with the 911 dispatcher.

"Depending on the extent of your injury, the dispatcher may determine that you need an ambulance or they may determine that you could potentially go to a clinic or an urgent care," American Medical Response (AMR) Boulder Operations Manager Brittany Buss explained. 

If the caller complains of life-threating symptoms like chest pains or trouble breathing, the dispatcher will send the standard ambulance and fire crew. If they think the caller might be better served by less-emergent care, they transfer the call to the ambulance company AMR's nurse call center in Texas, Buss said. 

Credit: AMR/City of Boulder

There Colorado-licensed nurses conduct a sort of "tele-triage," Steege explained.

 "They could have a telehealth visit, they could do urgent care, they could see a primary care physician or they could just receive advice from a nurse that's speaking to them on the line at the time," she said.  

If transportation is an issue, the nurse can even arrange for Lyft ride to a clinic or pharmacy, Buss said. 

In Boulder, emergency managers expect the nurse navigation program will eventually divert 10% of the 911 center's 13,000 monthly calls. Since it began last Tuesday, Steege said it had served 13 people from ages 19-93 with complaints ranging from nausea to sprained ankles. 

Steege acknowledges it may seem like a small number, but said every single person diverted to an alternative other than a hospital emergency room is a win that saves the community time and money. In some cases, the nurse on the phone suggested solutions that resolved the caller's problems without needing any type of advanced care. 

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