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City News

City of Tuscaloosa and UA Social Work Students Help Provide Alternative Care to Residents

Tuscaloosa, Ala. – The City of Tuscaloosa and The University of Alabama School of Social Work have partnered to strengthen its EMS Prevention Program, which assists vulnerable populations in identifying and using appropriate community resources to lessen the frequency of nonemergency calls to 911.

The program is housed in the Tuscaloosa Fire & Rescue Service, where emergency response personnel work with UA Social Work students to assess needs and barriers to care – mental health, medication, chronic illnesses – and, if needed, dispatch alternative care teams in lieu of full medical emergency teams, which often require more vehicles and personnel.

"Many people, especially those who are elderly or disabled, sometimes have to rely on emergency services for issues that can be resolved in other ways," said Allison Curington, director of field education in the UA School of Social Work. "In many of those cases, you need a social worker in the home for good case management to identify barriers and assist patients in removing them."

Tuscaloosa Fire & Rescue Service Chief Chris Williamson contacted Curington about enhancing its program in summer 2014. Williamson and Tuscaloosa EMS personnel already had identified a number of people who call 911 for non-emergency issues, like chronic shoulder pain and long-term management of diabetes. The EMS Prevention Team now conducts home visits, where assessments are done and information of alternative options are given to citizens. Additionally, team members were given the opportunity to assist citizens who had lost their homes in an apartment fire and were given the opportunity to respond on low-level emergencies with the department’s Alternative Response units.

Williamson said the city takes between 11,000 and 12,000 medical calls each year, a number that’s steadily growing. At least a quarter of those calls are considered low-level emergencies, like toothaches and sinus infections. Often, these 911 calls come from people who don’t have easy access to primary care,  so they use the emergency medical services system for these problems. Williamson said the department does want to start reducing the volume of calls and strain on emergency services, but the city won’t measure success by how many calls are reduced.

"We measure it by the lives we improve," Williamson said. "The patients we’ve seen … we’ve made a difference. We’ve managed to resolve some issues, and others have measurable improvements in their health conditions, like blood sugar and blood pressure. They feel accountable, and they learn to monitor their own health conditions."

Other barriers that have been relieved have included the city constructing a wheelchair port for the sidewalk at a man’s home and members of a local church helping clear space in the home of an elderly mother and daughter, which helped the daughter avoid tripping and falling, said Angela Lockhart, social work instructor and program advisor.

"These innovative pilot programs have already proven themselves," said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox. "While saving precious city resources, they are serving more people, and serving them better. I’m proud of our fire and rescue services for creating these unique, collaborative programs. The partnership with the UA School of Social Work is invaluable to both the citizens of Tuscaloosa and the university in fulfilling their teaching, research and service mission."

MSW students who are participating in field placements helped launch the program this semester. BSW students will continue to work with the program in the fall. The students create assessment tools for EMS personnel and help advertise the program throughout the community. The physical presence in the home is one of the most efficient ways of assessing conditions, and it also helps establish relationships with patients, Curington said.

"The community engagement aspect of the program is vital to spreading the word and connecting people to services," Lockhart said.