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Telephonic Nurse Triage and Emergency Room Utilization Griselda Chapa, MPH, MS 1 , Thomas Kotsos 1 , Antonio Linares, MD. 2 , Ken Hunter, DPA 1 , Kejian Niu, MS 3 , Jeff Kriner 4 HMC, 1 Chicago, IL , 2 WellPoint, Walnut Creek, CA, 3 Richmond, VA, and 4 Atlanta, GA, USA.

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Telephonic Nurse Triage and Emergency Room Utilization

Griselda Chapa, MPH, MS1, Thomas Kotsos1, Antonio Linares, MD.2 , Ken Hunter, DPA1, Kejian Niu, MS3, Jeff Kriner4HMC, 1Chicago, IL , 2WellPoint, Walnut Creek, CA, 3Richmond, VA, and 4Atlanta, GA, USA.

Annual Research Meeting 2009 ARM | June 28-30 | Chicago, IL

Abstract

Introduction

Discussion

Figure 1: Baseline NurseLine Emergency Room Visit Results

Previous research on telephonic nurse triage systems has reported difficulties in evaluating outcomes. Some research has documented that callers may not follow nurse advice and, therefore, any evaluation that does not examine claims overestimates savings. Cost avoidance methodologies have been employed; however, these have struggled with determining appropriateness of emergency room utilization.

We conducted a baseline study of our telephonic nurse triage system, NurseLine, by taking a national random sample ( N = 316) of cases where the caller intended to go to the emergency room before speaking with a nurse. We found that NurseLine callers were less likely to use the emergency room for nonemergent conditions. Nonemergent conditions were defined using severity adjusted procedure codes.

78% of the study sample sought medical services the day of the call and of this 17% had an office visit. Very few callers went to the emergency room for nonemergent conditions.

The findings of the baseline study prompted us to conduct a population study (N = 2,779,110) that would apply the knowledge gained on emergency room utilization to test the hypothesis that callers to NurseLine are less likely to use the emergency room when their conditions do not require emergency care. Because emergency room costs include facility and ancillary costs, e.g., lab and pharmacy, appropriate emergency room utilization can control costs. Also, directing people into appropriate care has implications for improved quality of care.

The progression of modern physician practice in recent decades has led to a model of care that finds physicians with less time to treat and advise their patients. One way that health care companies have tried to close this gap is to implement telephonic nurse triage systems. Theses are also known as nurse lines (NL) to provide guidance to callers regarding medical care. These are services provided by specially trained nurses to callers reporting a variety of medical complaints of varying severity. Nurses use decision support software to assist them in determining what advice to give the caller.

Telephonic programs are not a new methodology used to enhance health care advice to patients. The first recorded instance of assistance via telephone was recorded in 1879.1 By 1997, this had evolved to more than 500 nurse triage and advice systems serving 35 million Americans.2 Moreover, telephone advice nursing is the fastest growing nursing specialty.3 This growth has been exacerbated by a combination of concerns involving controlling unnecessary costs while providing quality services and maintaining customer satisfaction.4 The use of telephonic methods has been the subject of over 500 articles.5

Results from the population study reiterate the findings from the baseline study – callers are less likely to use the emergency room for nonemergent conditions but more likely to use the emergency room when their condition is coded as truly emergent.

The population study demonstrated that the intervention group was less likely to use the emergency room when it was not necessary( p<.001, CI 1.48,1.56 . Moreover, when the condition was truly emergent, the intervention group was more likely to use the emergency room (p<.001, CI 1.55,1.64 ).

An analysis of diagnosis codes demonstrated that conditions related to the highest CPT codes were diagnoses such as acute appendicitis and heart attacks. These conditions require timely attention to mitigate the possibility of long term adverse effects. In the examples presented here, an appendicitis not attended in a timely fashion could lead to septicemia. Similarly, a heart attack could lead to congestive heart failure.

Our results indicate that a telephonic NL program encourages appropriate emergency room utilization thereby reducing unnecessary costs and improving quality of services.

Our findings are particularly salient given the recently reported shortages of primary health care physicians.7 Lack of primary care has been linked to higher ER utilization. According to the most recently available national CDC data, an increase in ER visits has coincided with decreasing numbers of emergency care providers. This has resulted in overcrowding in hospital ER’s nationwide.8 Moreover, the same study classified only half of all ER visits as requiring immediate, emergent or urgent care.

Figure 2: Population Study Emergency Room Utilization

    • The population consisted of privately insured individuals (N = 2,799,110). The population was divided into two groups where the intervention group had access to the telephonic nurse triage system, NurseLine. The intervention and control groups were examined for equivalency based on predictive modeling risk scores.
  • We examined emergency room claims for both groups by running queries for Current Procedure Terminology (CPT) codes 99281 through 99285 and Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) codes G0380-G0384. These codes are severity adjusted where the lower the code, the less severe the condition. The HCPC codes were translated into CPT codes for ease of comparison.
  • For the intervention group, we linked the NurseLine call file with emergency claims using a 7 day post call window.
  • Finally we ran bivariate analysis to determine if there was a difference in emergency room utilization in CPT codes 99281 – 99282 and HCPC codes G0380-G0381 between the intervention and control groups.

Methodology

Conclusions

Our findings suggest that privately insured individuals prefer not to use the ER when their condition can be treated in a non-emergency setting. Given the costs associated with an ER visit, which involve professional, facility, and ancillary, e.g., pharmacy and supply, fees, we believe nurse triage systems do produce cost savings. Additionally, by channeling callers to appropriate services, they do not have to be in crowded emergency rooms where a low severity condition is likely to have a long wait time for treatment.

About HMC

HMC is one of the nation’s largest, most experienced managers of integrated care and total health solutions. We help members navigate the complexity of health care – from the most difficult, costly and debilitating medical conditions that increase health care costs, to the wellness programs that help prevent them.

Founded in 1983, HMC is a pioneer and leader in providing health solutions for employers, insurance companies and government entities. We are a wholly owned subsidiary of WellPoint, serving as both partner and proprietor in the delivery of innovative health care programs and services nationwide.

Through our Life ² total-health solution, we give people the tools they need to take control of their health and see positive results, whether they’ve just started careers, are planning families or are nearing retirement. Our population-based yet individualized approach to health care encompasses prevention, lifestyle and condition management and complex care. Nearly 24 million eligible members reside within HMC’s scope of care.

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References

1Lancet. Practice by Telephone. Lancet 1879;2:2819.

2 Cariello FP. Computerized Telephone Nurse Triage: An Evaluation of Service Quality and Cost. J Ambul Care Manage 2003;26:124-137.

3 Valanis B, Tanner C, Moscato SR, et al. A Model for Examining Predictors of Outcomes of Telephone Nursing Advice. J Nurs Adm. 2003;33(2):91-95.

4 O’Connell JM, Johnson, DA, Stallmeyer J, et al. A Satisfaction and Return-on-Investment Study of a Nurse Triage Service. AJMC 2001;(7):159-169.

5 Omery A. Advice Nursing Practice: On the Quality of the Evidence. J Nurs Adm 2003;33:353-360.

6 Shapiro SE, Shigeko I, Tanner CA, et al. Telephone Advice Nursing Services in a US Health Maintenance Organization. J Telemed Telecare 2004;10:50-54.

7 http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2009/01/05/edsa0105.htm

8 http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr007.pdf

Discussion

Results

Our research involved a two stage process where we first selected a random sample of NL callers who reported they intended to go to the emergency room prior to speaking with a NL nurse. We discovered that following a NL call, 17% had office visits. Moreover, we found that callers appeared to use the emergency room appropriately.

We then examined a population and divided into two cohorts where the intervention group had access to the NL service.

Findings from the baseline study that prompted the population study demonstrated that callers using emergency room services were more likely to use the emergency room when their condition was classified as truly emergent. Figure 1 displays the distribution of visits by severity code for the baseline study.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Jason Crock and Chang Su for their help with data issues, Susan McKenney and Suzanne Sullivan for program data and Britt Parrack for editorial support.

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