Wake County's new nurse program could help ease 911 call crunch

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Wake County EMS and its partners announced a new program that would not only connect 911 callers with accessible healthcare but also relieve over-burdened healthcare workers and reduce emergency room wait times.

The Nurse Navigation Program, set for launch on March 1, will connect those calling 911 with a non-life-threatening health issue to a nurse rather than dispatching emergency services. This can save patients both money and time, according to José Cabañas, chief medical officer for Wake County Government.

"The 911 operator would transfer the call to a nurse navigator instead of requesting the EMS response," Cabañas said. "The nurse navigator would collect more information from the caller and then route the caller to the best health-care option to meet their needs."

Based on a non-emergency patient's medical needs, location and insurance coverage, a nurse navigator would provide the caller with a recommended telehealth or in-person service provider. This allows these patients to bypass expensive, unnecessary ambulance and emergency room services, removing excessive pressure from healthcare officials.

"The Nurse Navigation Program enables us to do something we've never done before: provide individualized care to anyone who calls 911," Cabañas said. "It's about giving people the right care at the right time at the right place. It is true public service at its most basic level."

Wake County remains North Carolina's most populous county and grows by 62 people per day, making it the third-fastest-growing county in the state. As many of these individuals lack insurance or affordable access to health care, the Nurse Navigation Program seeks to link these patients to medical services available to them, according to Sig Hutchinson, chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

"These are all barriers to living a long and healthy life," Hutchinson said. "And we want to remove them. Because in Wake County, everyone deserves easy access to care, regardless of your financial means."

Healthcare and EMS workers are facing increased pressure, dealing with approximately 130,000 911 calls per year, said Wake County Commissioner Matt Calabria. These calls have increased by an estimated 15% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Calabria, within the first year of its introduction, the Nurse Navigation Program expects to divert 5% of 911 callers, or around 6,500 patients, from emergency services to a nurse navigator.

Fewer emergency calls to respond to will free up resources for emergency patients, promote efficiency in the emergency room and increase retention and recruitment among EMS workers, Calabria said. This program not only will provide more individualized care for patients, but could also reduce high emergency medical bills.

"The emergency room is by far the most expensive source of healthcare that you can receive," Calabria said. "So if we divert patients to providers who are better suited to tackling their specific problems and cut their medical bills at the same time, we're giving them the best shot at both health and financial success."

The Nurse Navigation Program's call center, based out of Dallas, provides services to callers in over 420 languages. The program is already implemented in areas including Washington D.C., Seattle, Washington and DeKalb County, Georgia, according to Lisa Edmonson, director of Nurse Navigation.
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