For the past several decades, ambulances operated under the policy of taking patients to their hospital of choice. This was necessary because HMOs wouldn't pay for care at a hospital outside the approved network. But federal laws have changed and people can now receive treatment at any emergency facility. Houston Fire Department Capt. Karen DuPont says the old policy puts a strain on HFD resources.
"Historically, we've always tried to take the patient to the destination of choice. Well that would mean that we may take a patient all the way across town. So we end up transporting patients, still, to hospital of choice even though they can be seen anywhere. We intend to begin transporting patients based on hospital availability of services to the closest, most appropriate hospital for that patient's condition."
For example, if someone lives in Kingwood, but has a car accident in Clear Lake, they used to be able to request transport to Kingwood Hospital. But now they're likely to be treated in Clear Lake instead, making it a shorter, safer and cheaper trip.
"So it decreases our response times, we're looking for reduced response times, we're looking for the ability to match patients up with the care that they need."
HFD also has a new web-based telemetry system, that all the area hospitals are connected to. So each hospital logs in and updates their status if the ICU is full, or critical equipment is broken or unavailable. That way, EMS personnel can make decisions about which hospital is best able to treat emergency patients.
"That's not to say that if you're experiencing an aggravation or exacerbation of a chronic condition -- if you have something for which you're being treated for in an ongoing relationship physician at a specific hospital and you're experiencing a flare-up of that condition we're certainly going to want to transport you to where you can receive the best care and that will be where your doctor is and where your records are."
DuPont says the department will phase the new policy in over the next two to three months. Laurie Johnson,