Emergency Room Visit - Twelve Things You Need to Know
Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Visiting the Emergency Room (the ER) of a hospital can
be a traumatic and stressful experience for anyone. Taking a moment to learn how
the ER works and what to expect can help reduce anxiety and ensure a smoother process should you
or a loved one require emergency services. The ER is also often referred to as
the Emergency Department.
- If you're in need of medical care after office hours,
find out if your health plan offers a toll-free advice line. Many plans have
toll-free numbers that you can call to speak with a nurse who can help you decide if a
trip to the ER is even necessary.
- Some ERs, especially at large hospitals, are divided into different
divisions such as pediatric ER for children, trauma services, and
observation units. ERs may also offer a "fast track" option for those with
less severe problems.
- The American College of Emergency Physicians recommends keeping an
"emergency file" containing your insurance cards, a list of all medications
you are taking, a list of any chronic conditions you may have, operations
you have had, and allergies (particularly drug allergies) that you have.
These can be kept in a folder that you can easily grab on the way out the
door should an ER visit be necessary. You can also include copies of recent
laboratory or diagnostic test results. Doing so may help reduce both the
cost and waiting time associated with your ER visit.
- Upon arrival at the ER, unless you arrive by
ambulance with a life-threatening injury, you will most likely be assessed by a triage nurse, who
will take a brief history of your condition, measure your vital signs
(blood pressure, temperature, pulse and respiratory rates), and prioritize
your case in terms of urgency.
- If you have a chronic illness that
requires frequent visits to the hospital, utilizing emergency services at the
same location can help speed your care, since the doctors have access to all of your medical history and
- Know that emergency rooms are often staffed differently. Some hospitals
staff the ER with only board-certified emergency physicians, while others
may rotate physicians from other specialties for ER coverage. You can find
out in advance if your preferred hospital ER is staffed by board-certified
emergency physicians if this is of concern to you.
- Be aware that if you must be admitted to the hospital, you may have to
wait some time before you are taken to your room. Likewise, plan for longer
waiting times in the ER if your problem is not urgent (bring something to
occupy your time such as a book or magazine to read, and if you have small
children, something to occupy their time such as toys or coloring books).
Many busy ER physicians will require time in order to assess the most urgent
patient care issues prior to evaluating less critical problems. Remember,
the ER is the first entry point for the most serious of medical illnesses.
- Ask about out-of-pocket costs. Even if you are
treated at a hospital approved by your health plan, some hospitals employ doctors (particularly ER
physicians, radiologists, and pathologists) who may not participate in your
group plan. You may receive a bill for services from these providers.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions. Emergency departments can be crowded,
confusing places. While errors are uncommon, they may occur. When you
receive any medications, diagnostic procedures, or treatments, ask what is
being done and why. Don't hesitate to speak up if you are unsure of
- Many ERs have social workers on staff to help you resolve insurance
issues, health plan approvals, and similar situations.
- Before you leave the ER, get all your discharge
instructions in writing.
Be sure that these include the names of physicians that you saw, the
diagnosis that was made, follow-up instructions, and any prescriptions you
Last Editorial Review: 12/6/2005
- Calling an ambulance may restrict your choices of an ER facility,
since ambulance drivers may be required to take you to the nearest facility
that is accepting patients. However, calling 9-1-1 is always best if your
emergency situation poses any threat to life or if you are physically unable
to travel by car. The paramedics who arrive on the scene can begin treating
your emergency immediately and can continue treatment en route to the