It’s 2 a.m., and you wake up with a terrible pain in your lower back. It’s 5 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, and you suddenly feel extremely nauseous. It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and the cough that’s been bothering you suddenly seems to take a turn for the worse. What should you do?
Depending on the severity of the problem and your overall health, the answer to that question may be to head to the emergency room — a unit within your local hospital that handles all manner of emergent medical issues.
“ER providers are able to very quickly assess and treat sudden, serious and often life-threatening health issues,” explains Dr. Sameer Amin, chief medical officer with L.A. Care Health Plan, the largest publicly operated health plan in the country that serves nearly 2.9 million members.
The ER, also known as the emergency department, is open 24/7 and can handle a wide range of illnesses, including physical and psychiatric issues, adds Patrick Cassell, patient care administration, emergency services, with Orlando Health in Florida.
Some ERs are Level 1 trauma centers that can handle “very high-level stuff,” he explains, while others, such as those in a community hospital or more rural settings, might need to transfer patients to a larger facility. These transfers happen when the acuity (severity) of the need exceeds the hospital’s capacity to care for the patient on-site.
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Common Reasons to Visit the ER
So, what constitutes an emergency?
“For us, an emergency is what the patient thinks is an emergency,” Cassell says. “It’s something that we don’t get judge-y about.”
According to a report from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, in 2018 (the most recent year data was available), U.S. residents made 143.5 million emergency room visits. Circulatory and digestive system conditions were the most common reasons for an emergency room visit, and 14% of those seen in the ER were admitted to the hospital.
Some common reasons to visit the ER include:
— Chest pains.
— Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
— Abdominal pain, which may be a sign of appendicitis, bowel obstruction, food poisoning or ulcers.
— Uncontrollable nausea or vomiting.
— COVID-19, influenza and other respiratory infections.
— Severe headaches.
— Weakness or numbness.
— Complications during pregnancy.
— Injuries, such as broken bones, sprains, cuts or open wounds.
— Dizziness, hallucinations and fainting.
— Mental health disorders or suicide attempts.
— Substance use disorders.
— Back pain.
— Skin infections, rashes or lesions on the skin.
— Foreign object stuck inside the body.
[READ 7 Signs You Should Be Readmitted to the Hospital]
When to Seek Urgent Care Instead of the ER
If you’re questioning where to seek care, you should opt for the emergency room if you might have a potentially serious condition or are in severe pain, advises Dr. Brian Lee, medical director of the Emergency Care Center at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California.
However, if you’re having a medical issue that’s not a full-blown emergency, but your primary care provider can’t get you in for an appointment, that’s a good time to head to an urgent care provider.
“Urgent care clinics are best equipped for a less dire level of care,” Amin explains. “They fill the gaps when the health concern will not require a hospital stay but still needs immediate treatment.”
Deciding between the ER and urgent care also depends on your medical history, notes Dr. Christopher E. San Miguel, clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. For example, most people with a cough and a low-grade fever can be treated at an urgent care clinic without difficulty.
“If, however, you have a history of a lung transplant, you should probably be seen for your cough and fever at an ED,” he recommends.
Because urgent care centers typically offer less robust interventions than what you’d find at the emergency room, they can’t help in all situations. They can, however, refer you to a local ER if you do require more intensive care. They also tend to have a lower deductible than the ER, “and if you’re paying out of pocket, urgent cares can be cheaper than an emergency department typically,” Cassell says.
Cost of Urgent Care vs. ER
On the cost front, San Miguel says there are a few factors to be aware of, particularly if funds are an issue.
“Urgent cares are like any other outpatient health care office — they can require payment up front and decline to see patients who are unable to pay,” San Miguel explains.
Emergency departments, however, are compelled by federal law — the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act, which was enacted in 1986 — to see patients and assess them for “life- or limb-threatening illness and injuries regardless of their ability to pay,” he says.
While this means that the ER must see you, they can “decline to treat non-life-threatening problems once they determine that they are non-life-threatening,” San Miguel adds.
You won’t be charged a fee upfront to be seen in the emergency room, but the hospital can and will bill you after you’ve been discharged.
When you accept treatment at the emergency department, “you’re still ultimately accepting responsibility for the bill,” San Miguel points out. “And because of the nature of providing a 24-hour service that is prepared to handle any emergency, the cost of care in the ED is much higher than the cost in an urgent care.”
If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve received emergency care but are unable to pay, you should call the billing office as soon as possible to talk about your options.
“Often the bill will be reduced and you’ll be placed on a reasonable payment plan,” San Miguel says.
For any non-urgent or ongoing health concerns, visit with your primary care provider, Amin adds.
“It’s always better to have longstanding issues taken care of in a calm and collected manner during normal business hours,” he explains.
[See: Questions Doctors Wish Their Patients Would Ask]
How Long Is the Wait at an ER?
Before you arrive, consider that you could be in for a long wait, depending on the type of problem you’re having and the situation inside the ER.
“We don’t operate on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s based on how sick you are,” Cassell explains.
For instance, he says, patients with more severe illnesses, such as a suspected heart attack or stroke, will take precedence over less severe problems, such as a sprain or an earache.
Even though you may walk in and find an empty waiting room and assume you’ll be seen quickly, there could be all sorts of activity going on behind the scenes. Especially in larger ERs, ambulances may be arriving with much sicker patients that you can’t see, so Cassell encourages you to be patient.
San Miguel adds, “The best thing you can do is to let the triage/registration team know if there has been a change in your symptoms while you are waiting. For instance, if your chest pain is getting worse or if you are now having trouble breathing, this should prompt the team to reassess you and make sure you are triaged appropriately.”
What Should You Do While You’re Waiting to Be Seen?
While you’re waiting, Amin recommends considering what the provider will ask you, such as:
— When did symptoms start?
— How long have they been going on for? Have they changed in severity or frequency?
— Are symptoms related to a health issue you’re being treated for?
— What triggered your visit to the ER today?
You should also bring a list of your medications, health conditions and history, such as chronic conditions and previous surgeries. It’s also a good idea to have the names of the providers on your care team, including your primary care doctor and any specialist, on hand.
Having this information at the ready is especially helpful if you’re headed to an ER that’s outside of the health system you typically use.
“It’s immensely valuable if patients are able to provide us with an accurate history of their medical problems and current medications,” San Miguel notes. “Unfortunately, not all electronic health systems communicate with each other, and in the middle of the night, it can be impossible to request records from another hospital.”
What Happens When You See an ER Provider
When you are brought in to see a provider, the initial aim of the interaction is to assess what’s going on and make sure you’re stabilized.
“(For some patients, a) big point of frustration is the need to tell their symptoms to more than one person,” San Miguel says. “It seems like we’re quite unorganized and not communicating with each other, but in reality, we just know that the patients themselves are the best source of information about their own symptoms.”
As the physician, San Miguel always reads the notes that come from the initial intake, “but I want to confirm the details directly with you.”
While you will receive some care on the spot, most of your treatment will take place elsewhere, Cassel adds.
“With the exception of putting in stitches to fix a cut, the emergency department is not in and of itself a definitive care spot. Definitive care takes place outside of the ED,” he says.
This means that once the care team determines what’s going on and what care you need, you’ll either be admitted to the hospital for more intensive treatment or sent home with care instructions and a plan for additional follow-up if necessary.
For example, if you are having a heart attack, you’ll be admitted to an inpatient unit in the hospital for more testing and stabilization. If you’ve come in for an earache, you’ll probably be given a prescription and sent home. You’ll then use those medications and recover with instructions to follow up with your primary care provider as soon as they can see you.
Lee underscores that “emergency and urgent care is not complete care. It is an acute intervention that addresses specific issues that often require further attention in the ambulatory office setting.”
Lastly, remember that the providers you’re working with are doing their best to look after you in a timely, helpful fashion. Cassell says that the people who staff the emergency department are there “because we love it. We are task-focused, and we’re often very busy going from place to place, but we really do care.”
Keep in mind that the ER is not generally a calm place and the patient experience will be different from what you might get if you’re admitted in the hospital.
“(But,) I work with some of the most caring and compassionate and kind people I’ve ever met,” Cassell says.
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When to Visit The ER originally appeared on usnews.com