WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - Authorities in Polk County say for some people, 911 has become a medical advice hotline. Many are calling or minor or chronic medical problems rather than going to the doctor. Some blame it on the economy, others say it's a lack of understanding of the service 911 provides. But the problem is not only costing taxpayers money, it's making it tougher for rescuers to get to real emergencies.
Dr. Greg White, medical director for Polk and Hardee Counties' Fire Rescue, says about 30% of the 911 calls they receive are for non-emergencies that don't require immediate medical treatment.
"Toothache, diaper rash, fever of 10 minutes duration," White said.
"And these guys are getting an ambulance response?" asked I-Team investigator Michael George.
"Oh yeah," White said.
The problem has been going on for years, White says. But in a bad economy, more people are using 911 instead of visiting their doctor.
"They don't understand how the system works. They don't understand the fiscal implications for sure," White said.
People planning to save money by avoiding a doctor are making a mistake by calling 911. The cost of an ER stay is often far greater than it would be to simply getting treatment at a clinic.
Taxpayers are paying for it, too. White says Polk County spent $1.8 million dollars in one year on frivolous 911 calls. The average cost of sending out an ambulance is more than $200, and rescuers have to respond to every call.
"I'd still get a response, even for a toothache?" asked George.
"Correct," White said.
Polk County does evaluate responses based on the nature of the call, but many counties don't have a system in place to do so.
Here is the transcript of one call in Polk County.
Call Taker: "Caller can you tell me exactly what happened?"
Caller: "Yes, I have diarrhea badly."
It was determined the patient did not have any serious medical issue.
Here's another example of a common 911 call.
Call Taker: "Ok, tell me exactly what happened?"
Caller: "I was in an automobile accident, and I sprained my knee and I bruised the bone and stretched some ligaments. And the night before last I fell asleep on the toilet and fell on my knee."
These issues are serious to the callers, but they take rescuers away from reporting to heart attacks, strokes, and other more serious ailments.
White believes the answer is to station nurses at 911 call centers to take minor calls.
"Perhaps send them to the dentist tomorrow. Send them to the health department the next day. Just utilizing our community resources better," White said.
The natural question is whether the nurses could potentially turn away people who need a real emergency response. White claims they will work to have safeguards against that. He is hoping to convince emergency managers across Florida to consider having nurses on staff.