MIT Medical’s 24/7 emergency hotline

A look into the after-hours system

What do you do when you have an urgent problem and MIT Medical is closed? Since MIT Medical’s Urgent Care closed to walk-ins from midnight to 7 a.m. two years ago, a 24-hour helpline service was put into place in December 2010. People with urgent medical or emotional problems can reach the helpline at 617-253-4481. However, the type of response differs based on the time that the person calls.

When someone calls the helpline during Urgent Care’s open hours (7 a.m. to 11 p.m.), the helpline connects the caller to the Urgent Care front desk. From there, a physician or nurse practitioner will answer the call and try to determine the immediacy of the concern. In contrast, when someone calls between midnight and 7 a.m., the caller will hear a recorded message asking them to press a number to transfer the call to another line based on their situation.

“If someone presses 3 (the mental health line) during the time Urgent Care is closed, the caller actually gets a call back from someone from MIT Mental Health,” explained Brian Ash, M.D., an internist at MIT Medical and Medical Coordinator of the Urgent Care service. “The reason for the initial voice prompts is because rather than have a general answering service, we have specific types of providers being the first person with whom you speak.”

There are a total of six lines that the helpline can refer a caller to. If the issue concerns a sick or injured child, the caller is asked to press 1, and if the issue concerns an adult with an urgent medical problem, the caller is asked to press 2. Similarly, the helpline directs the caller to dial campus police at 100 (from any on campus phone) if the issue is an emergency, 911 if the person is off-campus, and 617-253-1315 if an OB/GYN (Obstetrics and Gynecology) provider is requested.

If the caller dials for campus police, MIT EMS (Emergency Medical Service) is also dispatched. When Urgent Care is open, EMS can call a physician for support if needed. During the hours that Urgent Care is closed, however, EMS will transport the caller to a local emergency room.

“MIT EMS often deals with emergency mental health issues and can transport these patients to whichever area health care facility that best fits their needs,” said Annie Dunham ’13, Chief Emergency Medical Technician. “I’ve found that our EMTs are especially well-equipped to handle these type of emergencies both because they understand the pressures of living and working within the MIT community and because they genuinely care about the well-being of their fellow community members. As with any of our calls, mental health emergencies are treated with the utmost professionalism, sensitivity, compassion, and discretion.”

Brian Ash, MD, added that the help line is “largely a way to make sure that the medical department is available 24 hours a day, and that during those few hours that things are closed, people can still get advice and some guidance about whether it’s worth their seeking care outside of MIT.”

Recently, there has been a renewed push in publicizing the use of the help line during the night hours.

“We did a lot of postering in the dorms starting at the end of 2010 when the Urgent Care hours changed and we’ve continued this effort periodically since then, including this fall,” said Kim Schive, Marketing and Communications Specialist at MIT Medical. “These postering efforts seem to have had mixed results. … A few students told me they knew they’d seen a poster about this topic, but they didn’t know what, exactly, it said.”

In addition to postering, MIT Medical has started running paid advertisements this semester in The Tech in the form of a series of comic strips. The strip features two recurring characters, Alvara Baker and Fred Campus, who run into situations late at night which then require the use of the help line. Schive came up with the idea to run an MIT-specific comic strip after some “clinicians and administrators at MIT Medical were concerned that a number of students still hadn’t gotten the message.”

The strips are drawn by Solar Olugebefola ’99, who drew a strip for The Tech titled “Bartholomew Squeak” while he was an undergrad here. Olugebola often references MIT culture in his strips. For instance, the comic which ran on Oct. 30 referenced the annual pumpkin drop off of the Green Building.

David Tytell, Director of Marketing and Communications at MIT Medical, said that they “haven’t measured the results of the campaign yet since it is a semester-long effort.” According to the MIT Medical website, Urgent Care originally switched over due to the lack of overnight visits. In 2009, there was an average of 45.4 visits from 7 a.m. to midnight per day, but only 1.2 visits from midnight to 7 a.m. Overall, only 2.6 percent of the 17,027 Urgent Care visits that year were made overnight.

“There were often fewer students than staff upstairs,” said Brian Ash, MD “It was a question of ‘Where do we put our resources to best treat people?’”

Statistics on the number of people who actually use the 24-hour helpline were not available.

“My experience is that the help line has been pretty accurate with patients. I’m always glad when patients come in and they tell me that they called the help line,” said Jan Puibello, a nurse practitioner and Urgent Care Coordinator at MIT Medical. “I think that patients in general get a lot of reassurance from having that service available.”