Residents of 10 Houston-area counties—Harris, Austin, Montgomery, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Brazoria, Matagorda, Waller and Wharton counties—have a new health care resource—a 24-hour nurse triage call center aimed at answering health questions and choosing an appropriate place for care.

"A primary goal of the Nurse Health Line is to improve access to care and ensure more efficient use of the emergency rooms in Houston, including Harris and the surrounding counties," said Carol Paret, chief community benefits officer for Memorial Hermann Health System.

The Nurse Health Line—sponsored by the Memorial Hermann Health System—provides a bilingual staff of certified nurses who can assess callers' health concerns and determine the necessary level of care regardless of health insurance status of primary care provider. Projections indicate that about 25 percent of calls will be triaged to lower-level, non-critical care settings, Paret said.

"When you don't feel well, the last thing you want to do is wait in a crowded emergency room," said Dan Wolterman, president and CEO of Memorial Hermann Health System. "This new, free community-wide resource let's you talk directly with a registered nurse who will ask questions, determine what level of care you need, then refer you to an appropriate resource."

The service is open to all residents living in Harris County and the greater Houston region, Wolterman said.

In addition to assessments and referrals, community health workers are available o provide information on free or low-cost resources and clinics for the uninsured and underinsured. The Nurse Health Line is not designed to assist with life-threatening conditions or emergencies, and all calls made remain confidential.

An estimated 46 percent of patients treated and released from Harris County emergency rooms are primary-care treatable, according to a study by the University of Texas School of Public Health.

"With visits to the emergency room at an all-time high in Houston, wait times have skyrocketed," Houston Mayor Annise Parker said.

Parker said the call center should help ensure that emergency and ambulatory services remain available for crises, and the initiative could result in a significant cost savings for the community.

The Nurse Health Line is a Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment, or DSRIP, program sponsored by Memorial Hermann as part of the Southeast Texas Regional Healthcare Partnership, which is anchored by the Harris Health System and includes a number of health care providers and organizations. DSRIP programs are funded through the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

The Nurse Health Line can be reached at 713-338-7979. For more information, visit