Objective: To characterize ambulance utilization in a pediatric population and pediatric emergency physicians' judgement of the medical need for ambulance transport.
Methods: A convenience sample of ambulance transports were studied prospectively during a 5-week period. Exclusion criteria included transfer from another medical facility, study physician not available, need for immediate resuscitation, or trauma team activation. A questionnaire completed by the physician assessed medical need for the ambulance based on chief complaint, general appearance, vital signs, and ambulance run sheet information. A separate questionnaire was administered to the parents regarding reasons for ambulance use and other available means of transportation. Caregivers were contacted by telephone 2-3 days later to determine the mode of transportation home and the clinical outcome.
Results: Of 172 eligible patients, 92 (53%) were enrolled. Most (61%; 56/92) transports were considered medically unnecessary. Interestingly, 40% (37/92) of the subjects had no other means of transportation; 86% (32/37) of ambulance transports for this group were judged medically unnecessary. Overall, 86% (79/92) of families had not called their physician. There was no association between having spoken with the physician and medical need for an ambulance. Many (82%; 46/56) Medicaid transports were judged medically unnecessary Overall, follow-up was achieved for 91% (85/92) of the patients. No patient for whom transport was medically unnecessary had a repeat ED visit for the same complaint or required admission. Most patients (74%; 68/92) returned home without any assistance. Among the medically unnecessary transports, 52% (32/60) of the caregivers cited no other means of transportation, yet 34% (11/32) of these patients returned home by private car.
Conclusions: Most pediatric ambulance transports in this sample, which excluded patients requiring immediate resuscitation or trauma team care, were judged to be medically unnecessary. Caregivers often use an ambulance as a convenience or as the only means of transportation. An alternate, less resource-intensive transportation system may be more appropriate for this population.