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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, but if your situation is not a real emergency, this isn't true.

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, 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 like spend during an ER visit. You likely will have a larger co-pay than you would for a doctor 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, abdominal pain may be a symptom 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, making 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, ask questions, and 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 provider or use self-care measures at home. Making informed choices will result in better care, and ultimately, save you time and money.

What to expect

If you do go to the ER, be aware that patients are treated in order by the severity 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 determines 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 doctor 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 doctor 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 instance, when it may be a serious condition that should be treated. Any time you have a health concern, don't delay contacting your health care provider.

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

  • Chest pain or upper abdominal 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 persistent vomiting or diarrhea

  • Change in mental status such as confusion

  • Difficulty speaking

  • Unusual abdominal pain

  • Suicidal or homicidal thoughts

  • Changes in vision

Chronic conditions

Chronic conditions such as asthma or migraines sometimes flare up and require emergency care. A severe asthma attack, for instance, 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 aggravating a condition. 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.