Fort Worth's ambulance system MedStar will offer new options to 911 callers with minor medical issues -- including sending a taxi instead of an ambulance.
The new program employs a registered nurse to help screen calls and guide patients to alternative care.
Until now, dispatchers have had no choice but to send an ambulance, even for a recent caller who complained about a bad case of the hiccups.
The nurse, Susan Pelton, is a former paramedic and emergency room nurse.
"I'm going to rule out bad stuff, the critical stuff," she said. "I'm going to narrow it down where I'm fairly sure it's low priority."
If there's any doubt, she'll err on the side of caution and send an ambulance anyway, she said.
But for calls that clearly don't need an ambulance, she can arrange other options -- such as sending a taxi.
"While we're paying for that taxi ride, it's much less expensive than paying for an ambulance," said MedStar spokeswoman Tammy Moore.
A taxi ride will cost about $20. Ambulances staffed with paramedics cost closer to $1,200 per trip, she said.
The nurse can also suggest people go to a minor emergency clinic or a family physician's office instead of a hospital.
Several Fort Worth hospitals are paying for the program to reduce demands on emergency rooms.
MedStar is one of the first ambulance systems in the country to start such a program, but similar procedures are popular in England, Moore said.
"There are not a lot of people doing it, but I think it's the right thing for the patient and the system," she said. "We are all very, very excited about the program."
If callers insist on an ambulance, MedStar will still send one.
The nurse starts on Monday and will work during the day. But if the program proves to be successful, it could be expanded in the future, Moore said.
Medstar said about 9 percent of its calls in the past year would have qualified for the new program.