‘Ask a Nurse’ hotline program in danger
April 10, 2009
A Grand County hotline that provides callers free answers to health questions is threatened to close due to lack of funding.
The “Health Adviser Hotline” has been an available Grand County call line since 2001 in collaboration with Centura Health’s Ask-A-Nurse center at Porter Adventist Hospital, Denver.
The program provided 24-hour, seven-day-week access to qualified nurses, but due to call center cutbacks, by December, hotline hours reduced to weekdays only, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
From there, usage numbers dropped significantly, according to Grand County Rural Health Network Executive Director Jen Giacomini.
Weekends, Giacomini said, were times when Grand County callers used the health hotline most, times when local health clinics are closed.
In January, right after Saturdays were no longer available for the Ask-A-Nurse program and Sundays had already been nixed, calls dropped 60 percent from the previous year, and in February, calls were down 80 percent, according to Health Network records.
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Since 2001, the Health Advisor Hotline received an average 900 to 1,000 calls per year.
“We have eight years of data to show that this is really significant,” Giacomini said.
Then, with the program appearing jeopardized, the Rural Health Network was recently denied outside funding to continue the contracted service.
“We have money to go through July or August,” Giacomini said. Beyond that, she said, it’s uncertain what the fate of the hotline will be as the Network researches other ways to continue it.
The network is putting together a community task force to explore avenues for continuation of a call-a-nurse hotline.
“We hope to find another model or solution for enabling and empowering the individual to manage their own health care and make informed healthcare decisions,” Giacomini said.
Recent statistics show that 84 percent of people who have called the hotline would have made an incorrect decision prior to asking a nurse professional, such as going to an emergency room or calling 911 for something that is treatable at home, or callers would have forgone emergency treatment when such treatment was necessary.
“It helps point people in the correct direction,” Giacomini said. “If something can be treated at home, it saves money.”
The help line, she said, benefits everyone by giving the uninsured access to free health information, not just emergency-room access. Health care costs go up for everyone when emergency care goes unpaid.
The local help line has been used consistently across the county, Giacomini said, with the greatest percentage of callers from the Granby area, and 14 percent of callers visitors to Grand County.
Centura’s Rolando Salinas, program director of the Denver call center, said the free Ask-A-Nurse service that employs experienced registered nurses is part of an overall $226 million in charitable health care costs the hospital network absorbed in fiscal year 2008.
In Centura’s effort to operate “fiscally healthily,” he said, the hospital took a hard look at these costs and made changes across the board.
“If we weren’t smart about each and every program, then we’d be presented with the challenge of not being able to provide any programs,” he said.
Centura thought about shutting the Ask-A-Nurse center down all together, he said, but from listening to communities, kept it operating with reduced hours.
In service for 22 years, Centura’s call center handles about 145,000 calls a year.
According to Giacomini, free health-advice call centers around the nation are in jeopardy due to the fiscal challenges they face, in spite of their need among the uninsured and among those not sure if their question is worth the expense of a doctor’s appointment.
“Anecdotally, I know a lot of single moms use it,” she said, “and single adults who just get sick and don’t know what to do. It allows them to make informed decisions.”
The Grand County Rural Health Network distributes “Healthwise Handbooks,” a 400-page source printed in Spanish and English that discusses common (and some obscure) health questions and answers ” everything from first aid for animal bites, chemical burn, to what to do if someone is choking or has frostbite. It covers common colds to chronic diseases. Versions of the book target families and adults “50 and better.” Due to budget challenges this year, the Rural Health Network was not sure it could continue providing books ” about 1,500 of which have been distributed in the past four years ” if it weren’t for Grand County donating $2,000 and the help of private donors. The Health Network now plans to distribute 330 “Healthwise Handbooks” this year, many of which will be available at upcoming 9Health Fairs.