Every year, more than 100 million individuals visit the emergency department (ED), also called an emergency room or ER. They seek care for everything from headaches to broken bones, strokes, heart attacks, traumatic injuries and much more.
EDs across the country are well-equipped to handle many serious illnesses and injuries. However, not everything requires a trip to the ED. Minor health issues can be treated at urgent care or your doctor’s office. These locations have skilled, experienced providers ready to offer care for everything from an upper respiratory virus to stitches.
Here’s a quick guide on when you should visit the ED and what you can expect when you’re there.
EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT VS URGENT CARE VS PRIMARY CARE
When to Visit Primary Care Provider
Your primary care provider (PCP) can diagnose and treat many routine illnesses and injuries. Schedule an appointment at your doctor’s office if you’re experiencing any of the following:
- Back pain
- Burns (minor)
- Head injury (minor)
- Insect bite
- Nausea, vomiting
- Pink eye
- Sore throat
- Sprain or strain
- Urinary symptoms
When to Visit Urgent Care
Urgent care clinics treat many of the same conditions that your primary care provider does. Many locations have weekend and evening hours and can see you the same day you need care – making it a convenient option if your doctor’s office is closed or there aren’t any appointments available.
Urgent care clinics are also equipped to treat slightly more serious injuries. Consider visiting an urgent care location for the following (in addition to what’s listed above):
- Earache or ear infection
- Eye irritation
- Mild stomach pain
- Minor asthma attacks
- Minor burn
- Minor dog bites
When to Visit the Emergency Department
An emergency department can provide lifesaving care for serious injuries or illnesses. The ED at UC Health’s UC Medical Center is the region’s only Level I trauma center and West Chester Hospital is a Level III Trauma Center, which allows our teams to provide total care for every type of injury or illness.
Our physicians, nurses and staff are specially trained to provide the highest level of evidence-based emergency medicine for a wide range of conditions, including, but not limited to:
- Abscess that needs to be drained
- Allergic reaction (severe/anaphylaxis)
- Asthma attack (severe)
- Bleeding that won’t stop
- Broken bone, with the bone sticking out of the skin
- Brain Injury
- Burn (severe)
- Cardiac arrest
- Cut (severe)
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty walking
- Head injury or pain (severe)
- Heart attack
- Mental health emergency (psychiatric evaluation)
- Stomach pain (severe)
- Sudden confusion
- Sudden numbness or weakness
- Sudden loss of balance
- Sudden loss of vision
- Swallowed object
WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT
It can be overwhelming when you or a loved one experience a medical emergency. Knowing what to expect in the ER can help ease some anxiety. Keep this guide in mind if the unexpected happens.
You can’t anticipate an emergency, but you can plan for one. That’s particularly important if you or a loved one have a chronic medical condition that puts you or them at higher risk of experiencing a serious medical issue.
Create a folder with important information that’s easy to grab and share with emergency providers. Include the following:
- Insurance information
- ICE (in case of emergency) contact information
- Doctors’ names and contact information
- Medical history:
- Current diagnosis
- Past diagnosis
- Medication list (prescription and over-the-counter)
- Preferred hospital* contact information (including address and phone number)
In life-threatening situations, emergency services will take you to the nearest hospital before being transferred for specialized care.
Arriving at the Emergency Department
When you arrive at the emergency department, you’ll be greeted by experienced staff at a registration desk. They will:
- Begin triage by asking what brings you to the ER
- Gather basic information, including name and address
- Ask for insurance information
- Explain your next steps
Triage is an important step in making sure those that those who need immediate care receive it. A nurse or provider will evaluate you. They will gather more information about your reason for visiting the ER, including:
- When and how an injury occurred
- Medical history
- Family history
Your triage provider will also:
- Assess the severity of your condition
- Take vitals (heart rate, oxygen levels, blood pressure)
Using this information, you’ll be placed into a category that communicates how quickly you need to be seen by the emergency medicine physicians.
Triage Wait Times and Best Times to Visit Hospital
The best time to visit the hospital is when you need emergency medical care. Wait times in emergency rooms can vary widely based on the time of day and illnesses going around the community.
The registration team and triage nurse will do their best to let you know how long you may be waiting. If you can, plan on bringing headphones, a phone charger or something to help keep you occupied while you wait for care.
Seeking Specialized Care at Level I Trauma Centers
Most ERs have trauma designations. This means they are certified to treat different levels of trauma. Ambulances and medical helicopters may bring patients to a hospital depending on the trauma designation of its ER. Level I and Level II trauma centers can be busier simply because they have the staff and equipment to take care of more types of injuries and illnesses.
UC Medical Center is a Level I Trauma Center – the only one in the region. Our medical center also offers specialized, highly experienced care for complex (and straightforward) illnesses, injuries and conditions. As a Level I trauma center, we are equipped to provide the highest level of surgical care to trauma patients and have a full range of specialists and equipment available 24 hours a day.
Are ERs First-Come, First-Served?
Emergency departments treat the sickest or most gravely injured first. A person who lost consciousness in a car accident will be seen before a person who cut their finger and needs a few stitches (even if they’ve been waiting a lot longer.)
If your case is among the many considered “urgent,” then the emergency room will treat patients who are considered “emergent” or “immediate” before they treat you.
COVID-19 & THE ER
When Should I go to the ER for COVID-19 Symptoms?
Unfortunately, COVID-19 is still circulating, and new variants can be more contagious or cause more severe illness. The good news is that COVID-19 vaccines are very effective in preventing serious illness and hospitalization.
If you have COVID-19 and your symptoms are mild, you can talk to your doctor about comfort care or if you should take an anti-viral medication.
But what if your symptoms are getting much worse? Here are COVID-19 symptoms that should be seen in an ER:
- Difficulty breathing
- Pain or pressure in the chest that won’t go away
- New confusion
- Bluish lips or face
- Unable to stay awake