Latest Hurricanes Yield ER Solution

A local surgeon thinks he may have a solution to the over-crowding of emergency rooms. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports -- he got the idea from relief efforts during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

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Over the past five years the strain on Houston's emergency rooms has caused a sense of panic among some doctors and hospital staff. The situation where emergency rooms have to turn away patients is getting better, but the rate is still about 15 percent. The number of uninsured patients visiting ERs is higher than ever and that's creating a significant financial burden on hospitals. Dr. Guy Clifton is a surgeon with UT Medical School and the founder of Save Our ERs. He says, statewide, hospitals are losing about $200 million per year in caring for the uninsured.

Another strain on the hospital systems seems to be that ambulance drivers pick up an emergency case and don't always take the patient to the appropriate hospital. For instance, the city's level one trauma centers receive thousands more cases than other hospitals, even when those cases are lesser emergencies and could easily be treated at smaller hospitals. Clifton says there are 59 ambulance services in the 13-county region that respond to 9-1-1 calls and no one is coordinating their efforts.

Clifton says during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, all of the ambulances were coordinated through a command center that helped distribute patients to various hospitals. He thinks that approach could be reproduced and emergencies could be more efficiently handled when sent to the proper place.

Clifton says the ambulance services would have to participate voluntarily, at least in the beginning. And hospitals would have to accept whatever cases get sent their way, but Clifton thinks this method would go a long way in relieving emergency rooms. He says the next step is to market the idea to area stakeholders and see what kind of response he gets.

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