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 health care provider visit, 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 health care 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 health care 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. If someone drives you to the ER, you will stay in the waiting room until the staff figures out your condition. 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 health care 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 health care provider.
Here are warning signs of a medical emergency, according to the ACEP:
Chest pain or upper belly pain that lasts at least 2 minutes
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
Unusual belly pain
Suicidal or murderous thoughts
Changes in vision
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 health care provider to prevent making a condition worse. Doing so when you feel well can pay off in the long run. If you do need to go to the ER for your chronic condition, be sure to let your health care provider know.