Health Risk Management

Tips to help you prepare for a trip to the emergency room

The hospital’s emergency room is not a place you plan to end up, but each year in the U.S. people make 139.8 million visits to ERs across the country, seeking care for a wide range of injuries and illnesses. The best way to deal with what can be a very stressful experience is to plan ahead in case you or someone you care about needs emergency medical care. These strategies can help you get the care you need.

  • Know where to seek care. Not all illnesses and injuries mean you need to go to the emergency room. Urgent care clinics can handle a range of health issues. Some broken bones, sprains, fevers, strep throat and flu, nausea and vomiting, pinkeye, and urinary tract infections are just some of the conditions these clinics treat. Telemedicine may be another option for some conditions. Of course, for serious injuries and symptoms that may be caused by a heart attack, stroke, anaphylaxis, or other life-threatening condition, call 911 and seek immediate emergency medical care. It’s also helpful to do some research on your local emergency rooms to figure out which one you’d go to in an emergency. (If you’re transported by ambulance, you don’t usually have the option to choose which hospital you want to go to.) Start by asking your primary care provider which ER they recommend for which conditions. If you have younger children, find out if any area hospitals have pediatric emergency rooms or pediatric medicine specialty teams.
  • Be prepared to describe your symptoms and medical history. When possible, make a list of the symptoms that are the cause of your emergency room visit so you or the person who takes you there can share this information with the nurses and physicians. Include when the symptoms started, whether you’ve experienced them before, what makes them worse or better, how long they’ve been occurring, and why these symptoms prompted you to seek emergency care. The ER staff will also want information on your personal and family medical history. A secure electronic medical record or printed out medical records can help them get a better understanding of your health and risk factors.
  • Make sure family and caregivers know your wishes and can make key decisions. An advance directive that names a healthcare power of attorney can help you ensure that someone who knows what your wishes are in terms medical care can make those decisions on your behalf if you are too ill or injured to do so yourself.
  • Bring an advocate with you to the emergency room. When you’re very ill or in pain, it can be harder to take in and provide the important medical information needed to make an accurate diagnosis, build an appropriate treatment plan, and lower the risk of misdiagnosis and medical errors. It’s helpful to have someone you trust with you in the ER who can ask and answer questions and advocate on your behalf, so when possible, bring a family member or friend with you who can fill this role. A health advisor or health navigator can also be good resources.
  • Ask what your diagnosis is. If your issue isn’t clear cut, like a broken wrist, ask the emergency room physician what their diagnosis of your condition is. If they don’t have a definitive diagnosis, ask what the potential diagnoses are and how likely each one is.
  • Find out what’s going to happen next. Ask whether you’ll be staying for observation, admitted to the hospital, or discharged. Find out what’s involved in each scenario, for example will you undergo more tests, will you need surgery or another type of procedure, and how long is your estimated stay in observation or in the hospital? If you’re discharged home, carefully review your discharge notes, ask what symptoms or changes in your condition mean you should return to the emergency room, and promptly make any needed follow-up appointments. You should also ask if there will be test results you should check after your discharge.
Susan Walker

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