The paramedics who now rush patients to hospitals soon may be treating their less severe medical needs at home instead of in costly emergency rooms.
That’s the aim of a new certification program for community paramedics offered by Inver Hills Community College. The school will begin teaching the 12-credit program in February.
The certification is part of a more holistic, patient-focused approach to health care in the U.S.
Minnesota is one of a few states to try community paramedics as a way to provide care and cut down on costly emergency room visits. Once certified, these emergency medics can check on patients with chronic conditions, collect lab specimens and perform minor medical procedures.
“The whole goal of community paramedics is to keep people healthy,” said Dr. Aaron Burnett, medical director of Inver Hills emergency training programs and an emergency physician at Regions Hospital. “It is a transition, from emergency care to population health.”
The role of a community paramedic will be defined largely by where they work, Burnett said. In rural Minnesota, they may provide vaccinations when the demand for ambulance service is slow. In cities like St. Paul, they could check on patients who recently had surgery or provide routine health screenings in low income communities.
“I think, in metro areas, it will be a way to keep people out of the hospital,” Burnett said, noting that patients often wind up in emergency rooms unnecessarily and are exposed to a myriad of other illnesses. The community paramedics will be trained to recognize when patients are on a “slippery slope” that requires more advanced care.
The program has the potential to provide cost savings as doctors, insurers and patients look for more economical ways to provide health care.
Health care costs have grown ten fold in the U.S. over the past 30 years. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which analyzes health care trends and policy, found spending topped $2.5 trillion in 2010. Of that, 51 percent was spent on hospital stays and physician care and just 3 percent on in-home health care.
The demand for home health care workers and paramedics is expected to climb by 33 percent or more in the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Working paramedics from around the state can enroll in Inver Hills’ certificate program because students only are required to be on campus a few days, said Tia Radant, the college’s director of emergency training. Most of the course work can be done online and at clinical sites around Minnesota.
The college is partnering with Saint Mary’s University, and graduates of the certificate program can go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in allied health care management from the school. That provides a “career path” for emergency medical workers that wasn’t there before.
Inver Hills is at the forefront of a campaign to better educate emergency health care workers, Radant said. Only a handful of states, not including Minnesota, require paramedics hold a college degree.
“The skills and job expectations for a paramedic is highly developed and beyond the written protocol,” she said. “The job has evolved so much, and we believe more education makes a better paramedic.”
Community paramedics will be clinicians rather than technicians, she says, but they won’t replace existing health care workers such as in-home nurses. Instead, the certification was designed to fill a gap in services by providing preventative care.
Tim Howey, an emergency medical instructor at Inver Hills, has worked since September as a community paramedic for North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, which has one of the only programs in the state. He spends his time making sure patients have the proper medicines and that their chronic conditions haven’t worsened.
It keeps patients from returning to the hospital. It’s also more personal than a 15-minute ambulance ride.
“That’s been a very different aspect of the job for me, looking at a whole patient rather than just a set of problems,” Howey said. “We’ve been getting excellent feedback. It’s hard to put a cost savings number on it this early on, but my observations so far tell me people are getting better care.”