Paramedics: Non-Emergency Calls Create Strain, Frustration

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COLUMBIA - Coughs, nausea and backaches don't often require an ambulance. But those are just some of the non-emergency calls Boone Hospital gets on a daily basis.

Paramedics there have been answering an influx of calls - more than 10,000 in 2013, 2,000 of which were non-emergency requests for service. That's 18 percent.

Kevin Gill has been a paramedic for 23 years and said it's very frustrating when people call because they don't want to "get out in the weather" or "spend gas money."

"That's not what we're there for," he said. "We're not a taxi service, we're EMS."

When paramedics answer non-emergency calls, it diverts critical resources from situations which are a matter of life or death.

KOMU 8 News rode along with two paramedics for a day.

The first call they took was for an older woman who was feeling nauseous. On the way to the hospital the only things paramedics gave here were fluids and medication to settle her stomach.

There were three other people at the woman's house at the time. In even followed the ambulance in another vehicle.

"What someone considers an emergency," Gill said, "is very subjective."

Paramedics ask people to consider carefully before calling 9-1-1.

Here are some examples of non-emergency situations:

• Minor illness or injury not requiring immediate help:

  • Flu-like symptoms/common colds
  • Chronic aches and pains
  •  Minor cuts
  • Broken fingers or toes

• Emotional upsets
• Routine visits to medical offices, clinics and hospitals

"I always tell people, if you have a situation you don't feel comfortable handling, call us," Gill said.

Boone Hospital ambulance supervisor Marc Carr said there are other ways to get the care you need.

"Research and exploit your personal networks as much as possible if it's not an emergency," Carr said. " Utilize every resource at hand, whether that be a family member, friend, neighbor, an ask a nurse line, any of that to get advice prior to activating the EMS system."

The paramedics said they will always help someone who calls, but with only five ambulances in service on any given day, just a few non-emergency calls could put half of the hospital's resources out of commission.

"There's a lot of time and effort being invested, at the federal level, to reevaluate the EMS system as a whole and see if our model that worked 15 years ago is what we still need to be doing today," Carr said.

An improved EMS program could be in place in Columbia within the next five years or so, he said.