When you are in pain, you want relief as quickly as possible. When injury or illness arises, the experience can be frightening for you and your loved ones. Sometimes it can be unclear whether or not a medical condition requires you to go to the ER or whether less immediate treatments would be better. Here we explore what emergencies should send you to the ER and the other kinds of urgent care services available.
What Qualifies as an Emergency?
Some medical conditions qualify as emergencies because without rapid or advanced treatments (including surgery), death or permanent disability is imminent. These conditions warrant a visit to the emergency room because the need is dire and the treatments required are only available in a hospital setting. If you find yourself with an emergency condition, do not hesitate to go to the ER.
What Is a Valid Reason to Go to the ER?
It can be difficult to know when a visit to the ER is called for. Especially in the midst of severe pain or in the event of a dramatic injury, it can be difficult to make decisions clearly. That being said, there are a few symptoms that pretty safely qualify a patient for the emergency room:
- Fever of 104°F or higher that does not resolve with medicine
- Difficulty breathing, including choking or shortness of breath
- Head injuries, especially if the patient passes out or experiences confusion following the injury
- Severe pain or pressure in the chest, arm, or jaw
- Injury to the spine or neck, especially followed by loss of feeling, weakness, or paralysis
- Seizures, especially when prolonged or if the patient does not have a history of seizures
- Sudden confusion, weakness, dizziness, or loss of the ability to see, speak, or move
- Deep wounds or compound fractures (bone that protrudes through the skin)
- Heavy or uncontrolled bleeding
- Coughing or throwing up blood
- Electric shock or lightning strike
- Serious burn
- Poisoning or an alcohol or drug overdose
- Inhalation of smoke or other poisonous fumes
- Severe allergic reaction especially resulting in hives, swelling, or difficulty breathing
In cases of emergency, do not be afraid to call for an ambulance to take you or your loved one to the emergency room. Ambulances come equipped with qualified emergency medical technicians and basic medical treatment methods to provide care before the patient even reaches the hospital.
Can You Go to the ER When It’s Not an Emergency?
Given the choice between waiting in a hospital waiting room for hours and receiving care right away, the clear preference is a no-brainer. For this reason, it can be tempting to call 911 or go to the ER whenever a problem arises. However, there are several reasons why this is ill-advised.
Emergency room treatment generally costs two to three times more than the same care costs when offered by a general provider. Health insurance copayments can also be significantly steeper in an emergency department. Going to the ER for a condition that is really better suited to urgent care can bog down emergency rooms and actually delay treatment for you and others.
The Difference Between Urgent and Emergency Care
English users often use the words “urgent” and “emergency” interchangeably, often in the same breath. However, when it comes to medical care, the terms designate two different kinds of facilities that offer unique healthcare treatment opportunities. While both provide medical care more quickly than a visit to your regular physician, it is important to differentiate the two and go to the right one for treatment. If you are unsure if something qualifies as an emergency, telephone triage can help.
Emergency departments treat health conditions that threaten life or limb requiring immediate medical attention. They are open 24/7, morning, noon, and night and staffed with physicians, PAs, nurse practitioners, and RNs trained in delivering emergency care.
It is wise to go to the ER if you need immediate attention requiring the expertise of a specialist, since emergency departments have quick access to expert providers in specific medical disciplines including neurology and cardiology, and orthopedics. The ER is equipped with diagnostic methods such as imaging and laboratory resources that are required for rapid diagnosis and treatment in severe or life-threatening situations.
Urgent care facilities serve as the middle ground between emergency departments and a primary care provider. These walk-in clinics do not replace routine medical care with a regular physician; they offer care when a non-emergency medical condition arises and a patient cannot get in to see his or her doctor.
Urgent care clinics are generally staffed with physician assistants, nurses, and nurse practitioners. General physicians may be present or on-call. These clinics have access to basic medical care (X-rays and general lab tests) and usually an established list of conditions they treat. They have set hours and are significantly less expensive than emergency departments. Interestingly enough, they also often have shorter wait times.
If you are feeling unwell and can’t wait until tomorrow to get in to see your doctor, an urgent care clinic is likely the right fit for your needs. For anything more life-threatening, go to the ER.