Houston Fire Department develops virtual 911 checkup program

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- The Houston Fire Department responds to hundreds of medical calls a day, and while every call is treated seriously, not all of them are life threatening. In order to avoid burdening the 911 system any further, the City of Houston and Health Department developed ETHAN, or the Emergency-Tele-Health-And-Navigation-System, which was implemented three months ago.

How it works and why it's working

Thomas Guadalupe, a Houston Firefighter and EMT, says he's received calls for "paper cuts, (callers) might have a toothache that's been going on, (or) their wisdom teeth are coming in."

Through the ETHAN system, a call can be resolved in as little as seven minutes, while an emergency room transport can take hours. Medics like Guadalupe can now carry a tablet to the scene. Once they assess the situation, they can call up a doctor at the 911 call center.

Dr. Michael Gonzalez, an EMS physician, describes an ideal patient for the ETHAN system.

"The ideal patient is someone who may use 911 or use it frequently because they don't have transportation...or don't feel they have a primary care provider who they can reliably access," Dr. Gonzalez said.

According to Dr. Gonzalez, in the three months since the program has been implemented, it's had an 80 percent success rate in diverting patients who have called 911 from a long ER visit to a clinic appointment.

A doctor can book a clinic appointment and even a cab for the patient to take them to that appointment. An ER visit can cost thousands of dollars more compared to a clinic, which is usually in the hundreds.

"We're here to help everyone, (and) we want to make sure they get the care that they need," Dr. Gonzalez said. "We feel we aren't always dedicating the resources in the most efficient way we possibly can," he continued.

According to Dr. Gonzalez, even a 10 to 15 percent decrease in transports can make a huge difference for the city.

"It will allow for more of our units to be in service," Guadalupe said.

In the end, care is still provided, but the ETHAN system frees up EMTs and paramedics for the most urgent calls.
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