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City’s plan aims to cut down ER visits

Patients will be urged to use health centers

Public health officials are pushing to alleviate crowds at Boston’s emergency rooms by redirecting patients without life-threatening ailments to one of the city’s 25 community health centers, where care can be tailored to individuals and is significantly less expensive.

The initiative has established guidelines to facilitate communication between hospitals and community health centers to encourage emergency room patients to seek follow-up care at neighborhood medical facilities. The effort will include a $140,000 public information campaign - funded by hospitals, health centers, and insurers - to let people know that community health centers have flexible hours and offer a range of services, from dental work to acute care.

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“It’s a public education campaign to get people to go to the health centers instead of crowding up the emergency rooms at our hospitals,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who announced the initiative during his 2011 State of the City address, said Monday.

“Emergency rooms are for emergencies,’’ Menino said. “What we have to do is educate the public so they know services at community health centers are comparable to emergency rooms.’’

The public outreach will be run by Argus Communications and could include traditional advertisements and a social-media component. On Tuesday afternoon, Menino plans to kick off the next stage at the Dimock Center, a community health center in Roxbury that serves about 14,000 patients a year.

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Across Boston, about one out of every two city residents go to community health centers. “That’s about 380,000 people at last count,’’ said Kerin O’Toole, public affairs director of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. “But not everybody knows we are here.’’

Emergency room care can be extremely expensive and drive up overall health care costs when patients use it for illnesses that are not life-threatening.

“We are very careful not to say don’t seek emergency care when you have an emergency,’’ said Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “But we want folks to know if it’s not an emergency, there are lots of other options.’’

Most community health centers have extended evening hours, and many are open at least one day on the weekend, Ferrer said. Community health centers offer an array of services, including prenatal, dental, eye, mental health, and even urgent care.

Connecting patients to community health centers can be the first step for a patient to establishing a relationship with a primary-care physician. Officials hope that will prompt more people to seek preventive care and turn to a local medical facility next time they need care instead of an emergency room.

“We are encouraging people not only to come to a health center but also to do the follow-up work to keep them healthy,’’ said Ruth Ellen Fitch, president and chief executive officer of the Dimock Center. “It is more about how one takes care of one’s self on a regular basis,’’ as opposed to episodic health care.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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