Referring drug addicts to social services is an EMS win

Rather than adding more resources to combat substance abuse calls, linking patients to social services can help reduce EMS call volume

As part of the nation’s health care safety net, EMS crews respond to a disproportionate number of both emergency and non-emergent calls where transport to an emergency department is the least effective form of care.

Simultaneously, it can be one of the most expensive.

If the initial medical treatment isn’t followed up with a strong connection to a variety of social services, that ED trip becomes a revolving door, frustrating patients and emergency care providers alike.

In many cases, the services that these patients need exist; the challenge is to identify and connect both the patient and the service. A Baltimore EMS program aims to do just that by training medics to better engage with substance abuse callers and help link them up to community resources that will help them on a path to recovery.

In a busy 911 system, it may feel like a time-wasting effort to counsel and refer a patient with a drug addiction to social services. But if the patient is then able to receive the appropriate care and is taken out of the system, it’s a win for everyone.

We are seeing rising EMS call volume in many parts of the country. The instinctive response is to add more staffing and more units. But that model is failing. It’s often too expensive, too unwieldy, and frankly very inefficient. Residents are less likely to fund services through taxes, and reimbursement rates from insurers continue to shrink. 

It’s the classic theme of “work smarter, not harder.” Baltimore is a very busy EMS system, and its leaders are trying to improve its effectiveness without breaking the bank.

This project represents a small, but significant step in matching the right patient to the right serve, right at the point of entry. How cool is that?

About the author

Art Hsieh, MA, NRP teaches in Northern California at the Public Safety Training Center, Santa Rosa Junior College in the Emergency Care Program. An EMS provider since 1982, Art has served as a line medic, supervisor and chief officer in the private, third service and fire-based EMS. He has directed both primary and EMS continuing education programs. Art is a textbook writer, author of "EMT Exam for Dummies," has presented at conferences nationwide and continues to provide direct patient care regularly. Art is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. Contact Art at and connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.

Join the discussion

logo for print