Should I Go to the Emergency Room?

Grandma has been coughing for a few days and today she is huffing and puffing. You zip her over to the nearest emergency room.

First the flurry of attention — oxygen, intravenous needle, heart monitor — though this might not go so smoothly when very busy. Chest x-ray – ordered. Electrocardiogram – ordered.  A few hours scoot by and by now you are memorizing every sign posted on the walls. The Doctor whirled past your curtain like a typhoon blows past an island. You are pretty sure you’ve correctly diagnosed the three nearby patients after overhearing their stories. Tick………………………………..Tock.

“Soon they will be all over grandma, fluffing her pillows and pouring all sorts of wonderful medications into her,” you imagine. She will then be good as new.

Well……..perhaps not.

There is good evidence that the longer you spend in a crowded emergency room, the LESS care you get as time passes. It’s simple – you quickly become old news as newer and sicker patients fill the hallway stretchers. Emergency room crowding, in fact, has been clearly shown to lead to sub-par care for patients suffering from ailments such as pneumonia, heart attack or severe pain.

Bust as those emergency rooms can get, it begs the question: Should I go to the emergency room to seek care?

Dangers and risks are ever present when you walk through those glass and metal emergency room doors. ER’s are meant for the seriously ill like grandma who was having active breathing trouble.

In truth, it is best to avoid ER’s if possible. Many dangers will be discussed in future articles and in a future updated book edition of ER: Enter at Your Own Risk

Following are some questions to ask yourself before rushing to seek care at a hospital emergency room:

  • Are my Symptoms Unbearable? Worst headache ever? Worst pain in your abdomen? Chest pain that takes your breath away? If so, get help now by calling an ambulance. If you are able to continue your routine despite less severe symptoms ask yourself…
  • How Long Have Symptoms Lasted? If you have had the problem on and off for two or more days you probably have time to call your doctor for an appointment or go to urgent care if the family doctor cannot squeeze you in. If symptoms jolted you mercilessly right from the get-go and have not let up then get help at an emergency room.
  • Have I Ever Had These Symptoms Before? If so, you may know the treatment. Familiar indigestion? If antacids helped before, try it again. Women are often familiar with symptoms of a urinary tract infection. Caveat: If symptoms seem somewhat different than usual, are persistent or more severe then seek medical care.
  • Do I Have Any Serious Medical Conditions? Those who have serious medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, lupus etc. should be far more cautious about any ailment before dismissing it as nothing. If symptoms do not resolve within an hour or two you should call your doctor for advice. Age over 50 also puts you at greater risk.
  • Have I Tried Simple Remedies? If symptoms are bearable,  come and go (a better sign), seem familiar or have been brewing for a few days then consider trying simple remedies. Antacids and diet change for indigestion, or over-the-counter pain reliever for pain. Beware that indigestion can occasionally be a sign of heart attack too!  NOTE: You will be taken more seriously if you have tried simple remedies without relief.
  • Avoid the “Go To the ER” Auto-Response From Your Doctor. When you call your doctor and speak to office staff or an on-call doctor who does not know you, do not accept the reflexive “go to an ER” response. It is a “programmed” reply to avoid liability. Be sure you get a logical explanation why an ER visit is truly necessary. Perhaps an alternative like an appointment the next day or urgent care is reasonable if you feel it can wait because you do not feel that seriously ill.