IBM is announcing the next round of winners of its Smarter Cities Challenge grants today, and, as mayor of a city that received one of these great pro bono consulting engagements just last year, I can speak from experience when congratulating the cities of Busan, Korea; Palermo, Italy; San Isidro, Argentina; San Jose, USA; and Yamagata City, Japan.
Many other cities competed to make the case as to why IBM should invest its time and expertise in helping them address these issues of local, critical importance. There could only be a limited number of winners, and you were in that elite group.
Having had the good fortune to be in your position, I can say confidently that you can expect truly transformational experiences when you work hand in glove with the experts from IBM. To the mayors and citizens of the cities announced today, think of it this way: Your IBM visitors are something like honorary citizens. They come in person from all over the world – because it’s very hard to get a true sense of a city’s essence over the telephone and computer – to truly understand the personality, quirks and strengths of your respective regions. Although nearly every waking hour will be spent thinking about and discussing the assignment you’ve given them, the IBM team members will immerse themselves fully in your culture and witness firsthand the qualities that make your regions so attractive. They will eat your cuisine (they loved our barbecue!), visit landmarks and cultural sites, chat with residents, and see firsthand the legacy and potential of your regions.
When the IBM team visited Memphis in early 2016, I had just begun my term. The collaboration was an excellent way for my administration to dive right in. The city had asked IBM to come because we felt as if we needed to take a more strategic, methodical, data-driven approach to the issue we identified, which, at its root, is public health.
See, over the years, we’ve found that our emergency ambulance service, provided by our fire department, became overwhelmed with too many telephone calls that were not true health emergencies. This made it challenging to dispatch paramedics in a timely way to those suffering from acute, life-or-death health problems. We found ourselves in this position because residents know that we are always going to take their phone calls seriously, and provide transportation to the hospital emergency room if necessary.
Therefore, it became difficult to provide ideal service because our ambulance corps’ territory had grown with the city’s boundaries, and had a limited budget with only so many dispatchers, ambulances and paramedics. We were facing $20 million annual shortfalls in our emergency services budget, yet annual ambulance trips had increased over five years by 24 percent – that’s more than 124,000 trips. While our population had stayed the same since the 1970s, the geographic area of our boundaries had roughly doubled.
But perhaps most daunting of all was an over-reliance on the ambulance service for basic, non-emergency calls. Too few patients were availing themselves of the primary care offered by providers to better manage chronic, long term health and related lifestyle concerns. This was putting sicker patients at risk of not receiving timely attention.
In short, we needed to rethink our entire approach to emergency health services.
As with all cities that apply for a Smarter Cities Challenge grant, we already had a lot of good ideas. But we needed IBM to help us identify and validate our most promising approaches, and to further flesh out specific details for their implementation. IBM showed us how different city agencies could pool and analyze information to identify our challenges, then make better joint decisions. The team showed us how we could use data in a more systematic way to make the case to enlist the help of third parties, such as health insurance companies and health care clinics.
As a result of this collaboration, we formed a steering committee co-led by the Memphis Fire Department. We recently launched a pilot program where we send a doctor and a paramedic trained in community health to those patients with chronic health conditions that aren’t immediately life threatening. These patients are ultimately guided to community clinics, where they can work with physicians to manage their conditions and improve their lifestyles. Over the course of about two months, we discovered that about 64 percent of ambulance callers were better suited for a long-term approach rather than an immediate emergency room visit. We’re training nurses to evaluate callers and follow up with them over the long term to ensure that they establish a relationship with doctors. Local hospitals support these initiatives, as they ease their caseloads and ensure that they can adequately treat the very sick. The IBM team also helped us create the basis of an education campaign that has made residents more aware of the consequences of better decision making.
We were very glad to have hosted the IBM team, which brought an outsider’s neutral perspective and a fresh set of eyes to evaluating our opportunities. I know well that there is a lot of hard work ahead of you – but I also know well just how valuable the IBM team will be as you make your cities even better places to live, work, and enjoy.
The Honorable Jim Strickland is the Mayor of Memphis, USA.