A pilot program intended to help people with chronic medical conditions in their homes and reduce the number of calls to 911 for primary care is set to launch in Lake County in early March.
Spearheaded by the Wauconda Fire Protection District, the mobile integrated health care program is designed to reduce unnecessary trips to the emergency room by assessing patients and addressing issues in their daily environments before they call 911.
What also is known as the community paramedic program is designed to expand community services by taking health care outside a traditional setting.
“We did not want to take away from the existing 911 service,” explained Lt. Erik Christensen, medical officer for the Wauconda fire district, who doggedly pursued the initiative and partnerships and is credited as a force in bringing the Lake County program to fruition.
“It’s somebody they know they can trust. That’s one of the things we think is a unique advantage,” he said.
Wauconda will be joined by the Libertyville and Antioch fire departments and Countryside and Greater Round Lake fire protection districts in the regional initiative.
“Community paramedicine is a health care model that involves expanding the role of paramedics beyond traditional emergency response,” said Angela Baran, senior program officer with the Healthcare Foundation of Northern Lake County.
By addressing needs at that level and focusing on preventive measures, the program helps reduce the burden on emergency rooms and improve overall health outcomes and provided better access to care for underserved populations, she added.
The foundation has provided grants totaling $138,750 and is one of several organizations funding the pilot program available at no cost to participants.
The Lake County Community Foundation provided a $40,000 grant to support the project. Residents suffering from chronic conditions often have nowhere to turn other than 911 emergency systems, according to Emily Weber, director of programs and community investment.
“We believe that the Mobile Integrated Healthcare Program is an innovative and collaborative approach to identify and serve our neighbors with chronic health care problems,” she said.
Health assessments, chronic disease or medication management or post-discharge follow up visits will be among potential services.
Years in the making, what may be the first of its kind in Lake County is among a limited but growing number of mobile integrated health care programs in Illinois.
“This is obviously new to our area but it’s in its infancy in Illinois,” Christensen said.
Mobile integrated health units are regulated by the state and examined by the Illinois Department of Public Health as the programs are being established to ensure safety and proper implementation. The number of programs in Illinois was not available but more are expected to emerge, IDPH spokesman Mike Claffey said.
Paramedics often are called for situations that are not true emergencies but might require assistance of a different sort that can’t immediately be discerned or provided during a short visit.
“There are a lot of ways you can save somebody,” said Greg Formica, chief of the Greater Round Lake FPD. “Little bits and pieces make people’s lives better.”
In the Lake County program, a team of two off-duty paramedics will make house calls to frequent 911 callers identified through the district’s patient care reporting system who agree to participate. Talks also are ongoing with two local hospitals for referrals, Christensen said.
The program will operate three days a week to start. Visits lasting 90 minutes to two hours to provide a sense of potential underlying issues and a baseline for future comparison.
“A lot times, it’s something easily preventable,” Christensen said.
As planned, member departments will staff the program on a rotating monthly basis. A department utility vehicle rather than an ambulance will be used.
Rockford, the second larger fire department in Illinois, has had a mobile integrated health program for about 10 years and added a separate mental health component two years ago.
The Huntley Fire Protection District, which covers 55 square miles, established a full-time program in 2021.
Lt. Kelly Gitzke, a firefighter/paramedic and registered nurse is the director and only full-time employee of the mobile integrated health unit.
“We had a lot of high users of 911,” she said. “Our call volume was increasing dramatically.”
Gitzke reviews calls from the previous day and gets referrals from firefighters and paramedics. She visits individuals to assess their situations and connect them with resources.
One patient called 911 for back pain 97 times in 2022, she said.
After participating in the program, that number dropped to about a dozen last year, Gitzke said.
“Fire departments will realize once they start a program like this how it will benefit their residents and their departments,” she said.