What is Call Jumping?

Mary McMahon

In the health care industry, the term “call jumping” is used to refer to private ambulance services which muscle their way into emergency calls with the hopes of snagging customers. In a sense, they are literally jumping on calls for ambulances and emergency medical assistance. This practice is frowned upon in many areas, but it persists, especially in the United States, where health care costs are extremely high and many community ambulance services are stressed and overstretched, making it easy for private competitors to operate.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Call jumping can work in a number of ways. Typically it involves a private, for-profit ambulance service. An employee of the service may listen to police scanners to gather information about accidents and other situations when an ambulance might be called for, and then dispatch an ambulance to the site in the hopes of beating the hospital or community ambulance. Call jumping can also occur in emergency rooms, with staff fighting with the official ambulance service to transport patients when transports are ordered.

For patients, call jumping can result in an expensive bill, because for-profit services tend to be more expensive than community-run services. Sometimes insurance companies will balk at the use of a private ambulance service, so even patients with insurance may be faced with an ugly bill. Call jumping can also be dangerous for patients, as an argument over territory may waste time, meaning that patients receive medical care more slowly.

In many communities, call jumping is also regarded as a public safety hazard. Any time an ambulance hits the road with lights blazing and siren howling, it poses a safety risk, because the ambulance must travel at high speed to reach patients, relying on the community to observe traffic laws and yield to the ambulance. Generally the disruption to traffic and potential risk of accidents is an acceptable risk in the interest of the patient in need, but when rival ambulances are both racing to the same site, it raises the risk significantly.

Many private ambulance services specifically claim that they discourage call jumping, and that they will fire employees for this practice. However, this is not always the case; ambulance transport is a big business, and private firms know that they stand to make a lot of money by engaging in call jumping on occasion. Community-run services have also protested the practice, arguing that it threatens public safety while being a distraction. Call jumping can also create a resource bottleneck, with multiple ambulances moving towards the same site while other areas may be left uncovered.

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