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Emergency Care: When is it the Right Choice?

If you're sick or hurt and want help quickly, it may seem like a good idea to go to the emergency room (ER) for care. You may think of the ER as a source of the most immediate medical attention. This isn’t true if your situation is not a real emergency.

When you go to the ER, you can't take a number and get help according to when you arrived.

Instead of getting quick service, you may sit for hours in a crowded waiting room while more urgent cases are seen first. ERs also may be crowded because of staff shortages or because ill patients are waiting for hospital beds to become available. Time isn't the only thing you'll likely spend during an ER visit. You will probably have a larger co-pay than you would for a healthcare provider visit, the ER providers may be out-of-network, which will result in higher charges, or your ER visit for a nonemergency might not be covered at all.

A wise health consumer

Why do so many people use the ER if they don't really need to? In many cases, it's simply because it's difficult to know what certain symptoms mean, whether it's a throbbing headache, an injured ankle, or a child with a fever. For instance, belly pain may be a sign of many different conditions, ranging from menstrual cramps to appendicitis.

In addition to feeling confused about symptoms, it's natural to feel nervous when illness or injury occurs. This makes it more difficult to think things through.

Your healthcare provider is a great source of help for choosing what's right for your situation. Call and describe your symptoms and ask questions. Get information that can help you decide whether you should go to the ER. You may just need to make an appointment to see your healthcare provider or use self-care measures at home. Making informed choices will result in better care. In the end, you can save time and money.

What to expect

If you do go to the ER, know that patients are treated in order of the seriousness of their injury or illness. According to the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), if you arrive by ambulance or are unconscious, you will be taken to a bed immediately for treatment. However, if you arrive by ambulance, you will still be screened to determine your triage level and need for immediate care and placement in a bed. You may still be ent to the waiting room. If someone drives you to the ER, you will be assessed by a nurse to determine your triage severity to determine the severity of your illness or inury. A nurse will take your temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure, check your symptoms, and find out your medical history. In the exam area, a health care provider will examine you and may order tests. If you are seriously ill, you may be admitted to the hospital. If you are sent home, the ER healthcare provider will discuss your diagnosis and treatment plan, the ACEP says.

Needing more care

When you don't recognize or understand symptoms, it's possible to choose too little care. Sometimes, people downplay a valid health issue instead of getting information and treatment for their illness or injury. A person may think that a stomachache will go away, for example, when it may be a serious condition that should be treated. Any time you have a health concern, don't wait to contact your healthcare provider.

Here are some warning signs of a medical emergency, according to the ACEP:

  • Chest pain or upper belly pain that lasts at least 2 minutes

  • Uncontrolled bleeding

  • Sudden or severe pain

  • Coughing or vomiting blood

  • Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath

  • Sudden dizziness, weakness, or change in vision

  • Severe or lasting vomiting or diarrhea

  • Change in mental status like confusion

  • Difficulty speaking

  • Unusual belly pain

  • Suicidal or murderous thoughts

  • Changes in vision

Chronic conditions

Chronic conditions like asthma or migraines sometimes flare up and need emergency care. A severe asthma attack may be life-threatening if you can't breathe properly. If you have a chronic condition, it's best to work with your healthcare provider to prevent making a condition worse.  Knowing when your chronic condition is worse is important and a good reson to seek care in the ER. If you do need to go to the ER for your chronic condition, be sure to let your healthcare provider know, the next time you visit your doctor.

Online Medical Reviewer: Duldner, John E., MD, MS
Date Last Reviewed: 9/3/2015
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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