Ask Your Nurse: Health Care Help for the Uninsured

People with no health insurance often use emergency rooms for most of their health care issues. It is an expensive and inefficient way to deliver health care. Houston Public Radio's Rod Rice reports that five years ago the Harris County Hospital District began a program designed to provide better health care to the uninsured and ease the strain on emergency rooms. It's called Ask Your Nurse.

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(Telephone rings) "Thanks for calling Ask Your Nurse, this is Jon may I help you?"

Jon Fry sits at a cubicle on the 9th floor of a building along the south loop. He's one of the hospital district's registered nurses who take calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He takes information about the patient and her condition all the while moving from window to window on his computer as he updates and records the information.

"Does she have any kind of medical issues like asthma or anything like that? Is she on any kind of medications? Is she allergic to anything we know of? How many times has she had diarrhea today?"

This is a call from a mother about her sick child who is being looked after by her grandmother. Fry gets the grandmother's phone number for a conference call about the little girl's current symptoms.

"What's she doing right now? She's active, she listens to you, all that? Usually when this happens it's a stomach virus okay? With what we feed her no fried stuff okay, nothing that comes out of a box. Right now we need simple bland foods."

More then 134,000 calls have been like this one, and the one in which Fry advises a woman to go to a clinic the next day that accepts walks in, but to get there early in the morning. More then 47,000 callers have been told they need to get to an emergency room. Fry says the nurses are only as helpful as the information they're given.

"You have to try and figure out what it is that they're not looking at because some people will call and they're more concerned about their headache and they're not concerned about their chest pain. Thanks for calling…."

Jon and the others on duty are busy; there isn't much time between calls. An indication, says the hospital district's Dr. Margo Hilliard that Ask Your Nurse is a valuable resource.

"We have a community that has one of the largest communities of uninsured residents of any community in the nation, and there are a lot of people here who don't know what to do when they have a health concern. Most people who go to emergency centers go there because they are frightened, and Ask Your Nurse gives then an option."

The service is free and translators are available for many languages 24 hours a day. The hospital district estimates that in the five years Ask Your Nurse has been around it has saved $14 to $16 million by keeping non-emergency patients out of emergency rooms while at the same time giving callers access to immediate medical information and alternative care solutions.

The Ask Your Nurse number is 713-633-CALL. 713-633-C-A-L-L.

Bio photo of Rod Rice

Rod Rice

Local Anchor, Morning Edition

Rod Rice became fascinated with radio at an early age, while sitting on his Grandfather’s lap listening to his "programs" on the big Emerson Radio...