When you or a loved one needs medical attention, you want to make the right decision and fast. Do you need to go to the emergency room? Will an urgent care clinic be able to help? Or can you wait and make an appointment with your primary care provider? It’s important to understand all of your options before it’s an urgent situation, so you don’t waste time during a medical emergency.
I recently spoke with Dr. Miles Varn, Chief Medical Officer of PinnacleCare, the world’s leading private health advisory firm. Dr. Varn is also a board certified emergency physician who spent 15 years at Inova Fairfax Hospital, a level 1 trauma center in Northern Virginia to get his advice on how to decide which treatment path to take.
There can be cost and time implications to going to the emergency room, which has a higher out-of-pocket deductible than a doctor visit. But in a life-threatening emergency, an emergency room (either hospital-based or freestanding) is your best option. Emergency rooms are always open, and have access to specialized care not available elsewhere. So when is it really worth it to head to the ER?
If someone is choking, has stopped breathing or is severely burned, call 9-1-1 and take an ambulance to the ER. The same is true for someone suffering from a head, neck or spine injury, or electric shock.
You should also head to the emergency room for severe chest pain or pressure, which could indicate a heart attack. Stroke symptoms – sudden numbness or weakness, confusion, blurred vision, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination – necessitate an emergency room visit. Seizures, deep wounds, severe allergic reactions, or poisoning are also best treated in the ER.
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If you think you have a common illness like the flu or an ear infection, or a minor injury, there is no need to go to the ER. In addition to the higher out-of-pocket cost, you’re likely to spend a long time waiting. Emergency rooms prioritize patients based on the seriousness of their situation. Those patients described above will need immediate attention. You and your ear infection will be forced to wait.
If you have an established relationship with a primary care provider, you can always call your doctor if you’re unsure about what to do. Even after hours, you should be able to speak with a doctor on call.
While we can all hope to never need to make that call to 9-1-1, the truth is that roughly 20% of Americans have at least one emergency room visit in any given year. With those odds, it’s a good idea to think ahead and have a plan in place.