ABC News 8: Tarrant ambulance service reaches out to 'frequent fliers'

Tarrant ambulance service reaches out to 'frequent fliers'

FORT WORTH — They're called "frequent fliers" — patients who call 911 early and often, unnecessarily costing the system time and money.

One local ambulance service has now found a way to save nearly a million dollars — not by ignoring those callers, but by really listening to them.

John Davis has a terrifying medical condition that results in migraines so severe that part of his body is paralyzed. He used to call 911 at any sign of a problem.

"In 2008, I had to call MedStar maybe over 40 times," he said.

Davis is one of nearly two dozen patients who used to be among MedStar's most frequent users. The small group was responsible for more than 800 ambulance runs in one year, running up high (and often unpaid) bills.

Then MedStar started what it calls the Community Health Program, a specially trained unit of paramedics that took on the 21 patients as clients — visiting them often, and showing them how to get help without always dialing 911.

"They needed somebody that would show them a little extra care," said paramedic Sean Burton.

The answers, it turned out, were often as simple as a hot apartment that needed a new fan, or helping a client understand numerous confusing prescriptions.

"We've gone so far as to provide them with weekly pill boxes, separate the meds for them," Burton said.

In the past year, the program has saved nearly one million dollars in ambulance charges, while connecting the patients with health care programs they didn't know about before.

"Their 911 use and their emergency room use dramatically dropped," said Matt Zavadsky, MedStar's associate director of operations.

John Davis will soon graduate from the program with a better understanding of how to take care of himself, and the knowledge that — if he can't — there's still someone standing by to help.

"They have helped me learn to do what the doctors have told me to do," he said.

MedStar recently won a national innovator's award for the Community Health Program. EMS operations around the country have already asked for help in duplicating their effort.