Paramedics Using Telehealth to Keep Mildly Ill Patients Out of Hospital

Goal is to Preserve Hospital Beds for COVID-19 Patients
LA County Fire reports a large uptick of patients with flu-like symptoms calling for an ambulance in recent weeks. Photo Credit: Dodgerton Skillhause/Morguefile

Suzanne Potter
California News Service

LOS ANGELES – If you call an ambulance in Los Angeles these days, you may wind up videoconferencing with a nurse practitioner at home instead of going to an emergency room. Paramedics in Los Angeles are trying a new telehealth program to treat people with mild illnesses on the scene, which saves precious hospital beds for severely ill COVID-19 patients.

Sean Ferguson, firefighter specialist with the L.A. County Fire Department, said in cases of mild illness, a nurse practitioner can provide the right level of care.

“They can then further evaluate the patient, make their own medical assessment, create a treatment plan and even prescribe medicine to them, thus saving them a trip to the emergency room,” Ferguson said.

The fire department for the City of L.A. also is participating in the program, which is free to patients and saves them a very expensive trip to the ER. This is one of the first large-scale paramedic telehealth programs in the country to be created in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Ferguson said people call ambulances for non-emergency reasons on a regular basis – sometimes even if they’ve just run out of a prescription – and that puts a strain on hospitals.

“We still encourage people to call 911 if they believe they have a medical emergency,” he said, “and then through our medical assessment on scene, we may then conference them in to these nurse practitioners.”

On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order expanding protections for medical providers that offer telehealth services. Ferguson said the city and county hope to continue the telehealth program long after the current crisis has passed.