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Always on call: Upstate connects with doctors, patients, community around the clock

Among the Upstate Connect staff are Nimer Shehadeh, call center representative, Kari Fitzgerald, MD Direct manager, and Jewel Hunter, call center manager.

Among the Upstate Connect staff are Nimer Shehadeh, call center representative, Kari Fitzgerald, MD Direct manager, and Jewel Hunter, call center manager. Photo by Susan Kahn.

By Jeff Kramer

Got a question about your sick child, but it‘s after hours?

Just got home from a surgical consult, and you have some questions?

Dealing with an embarrassing medical matter you‘d rather not share with your primary care doc?

Who you gonna call?

For tens of thousands of Central New Yorkers, it‘s the Upstate Connect call center -- and the call is free.

Averaging a staggering 125,000 calls per month -- the archive contains 7 million recorded calls -- the center functions as a region-wide medical switchboard serving residents, physicians, Upstate patients, first-responders and others. It‘s located on the sixth floor of a downtown office building. Nothing in the ho-hum arrangement of work stations and tap-tapping of computer keys hints at the scope and drama of the center‘s mission.

If a patient at Upstate suffers a stroke or goes into cardiac arrest, it‘s the Call Center that gets alerted first and must dispatch the appropriate medical team to the right room.  The center also is responsible for arranging transfers of roughly 200 patients per week to Upstate. Most of those patients have urgent medical needs, and many arrive from smaller hospitals where specialized care is becoming increasingly scarce.

The to-do list is long and getting longer. Among the center‘s myriad tasks: providing medical referrals to the public, which means maintaining updated physician profiles for a vast swath of New York state  --- whether they‘re affiliated with Upstate or not. That‘s a lot of expertise to track.

“We service an 18-county area,” says MD Direct manager Kari Fitzgerald. “It‘s a lot. Physicians move around. They‘re all over the area. It‘s a big job.”

The toll-free Upstate Connect number is 1-800-464-8668. Registered nurses staff the center 24/7.  In the event of a serious threat to public health such as a flu pandemic or an anthrax scare, the call center is part of the New York State Hospital Emergency Response Delivery System, which involves relevant agencies to establish a ”help line” for the public.

There‘s also a translation function. If someone comes to the Emergency Department who only speaks, say, Burmese, Upstate Connect finds a translator and sees that they arrive at the hospital.

Read this and other stories in the summer issue of Upstate Health magazine.Not every call is life and death, although sometimes callers don‘t know that. It‘s not unusual for the center to field inquiries from desperate students needing help with research papers. Sometimes things get flat-out weird. Once the center received an apparently sincere call from an individual requesting step-by-step instructions on how to deploy a common contraceptive device.

All in a day‘s work for the 48-member Upstate Connect team, the medical switchboard for Central New York and beyond.