No one wants to find themselves dialing 911. Unfortunately, life takes unexpected turns and having emergency responders is something to be thankful for. That being said, ambulance rides are notoriously expensive, and not always medically necessary. Because specific internal paperwork, third-party preferences in hospital, and lack of competition, people in emergency situations are often left no choice but to wait for a large impending ambulance bill. 

Over the hot Independence Day weekend, I found myself in this situation. My teenage sister suddenly fell to the ground and suffered a small Vasovagel seizure due to dehydration, low iron levels, and standing up too fast. Because she has never had a history of seizures or fainting, this was quite the scary situation. I decided to call 911 as she was being tended to by the rest of my family. By the time the ambulance arrived–just a few minutes later–she was already fully conscious and sitting up. Luckily my sister is doing just fine, and an episode like this should not happen again.

Was an ambulance ride medically necessary at that point? Or, could we have driven her to the ER ourselves and saved on the bills to come? We could not make an informed choice because no estimated cost was given, and she took the ride to the hospital just to be safe. 

In a USA Today oped, Rick Santoro shared the story of his two mile and $2,691.50 ambulance ride. He described his semi-emergency situation and concluded that his transport was non-medically necessary. Stories like Rick and my sister’s are not uncommon.

On the other hand, lack of price transparency in our healthcare system (specifically ambulances) can have potentially dangerous consequences. 

I did the right thing according to traditional emergency training. In all emergency situations, calling 911 is always one of the first things on the list of things to do. However, because no one knows just how much an ambulance ride is going to cost, I could imagine some bystanders being more cautious (and maybe waiting a few extra minutes) to call for paramedics. But what if the emergency was more urgent than my sister’s episode? This uncertainty can deter people from calling an ambulance if they think they can make it to their preferred hospital via cheaper forms of transportation. 

The problem is two-fold: Firstly, people can be deterred from calling an ambulance because they know it will cost A LOT and they will try to wait and transport themselves; Second, if an ambulance IS called for a non-medically necessary transport there needs to be more transparency about cost. 

I propose that in situations where the ambulance ride isn’t obviously needed, paramedics fully disclose the cost of the transportation to the hospital. Additionally, if an in-network hospital is within safe distance, I think consumers should be able to have that choice too. 

To be perfectly clear, I do believe we should all continue to call 911 in emergency situations, and these conversations about cost should only happen in situations where time is not an issue. Keeping all parties informed on all available choices–ambulance ride or not–will always help the patient. Price transparency in all aspects of the medical field will help patients secure procedures within their budget. However, for emergency services like ambulances, price transparency can alleviate doubt and inform the split second choices we make when calling 911.