Objective: To determine whether emergency medical technicians (EMTs) can safely apply protocols to assign transport options and to assess agreement between groups of providers on application of the protocols.
Methods: Developed protocols categorized patients as: 1) needs ambulance; 2) go to the emergency department (ED) by alternative means; 3) contact primary care provider (PCP); or 4) treat and release. After education on the application of the protocols, first responders and ambulance EMTs categorized patients at the scene prior to transport but did not change current practice. Ambulance reports were reviewed using a predetermined list of critical events that signified the need for an ambulance.
Results: The EMTs categorized 1,300 study patients as follows: 1,023 (79%) needed ambulance transport, 200 (15%) could go to the ED by alternative means, 63 (5%) could contact a PCP, 14 (1%) could be treated and released. Categorizations by a first responder and the transporting EMT were compared for 209 patients. Collapsing categories to "need ambulance/do not need ambulance" showed fair concordance (kappa = 0.51). Initially, 30 of 277 (11%) patients determined not to need an ambulance appeared to experience a critical event. After review, 23 patients had events that may not warrant advanced life support transport. Seven (3%) had critical events in the ambulance warranting ambulance transport. Most were miscategorized by the EMT. Overall sensitivity and specificity for identifying patients needing ambulance transport were 94.5% and 32.8%, respectively.
Conclusions: From 3% to 11% of patients determined on scene not to need an ambulance had a critical event. Emergency medical services systems need to determine an acceptable rate of undertriage. Further study is needed to determine whether better adherence to the protocols might increase safety.