Know when to go: ER vs. primary care

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.

20% of Americans visit the ER at least once a year. With those odds, you need a plan. Click To Tweet

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?

Don’t Wait

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. 

 

Schedule An Appointment

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.

To find the nearest Emergency Room, click here. To schedule an appointment with a primary care physician, click here.

7 questions for an ER nurse

hen minutes count, it’s best to be prepared. Sharon Tatum, a nurse in the Emergency Department, answers seven questions about knowing when to go to the emergency room and how to get the most out of your visit.  

Q: When should I come to the Emergency Department as opposed to an urgent care?

A: There are some conditions that require time-sensitive treatment to improve your recovery (example – stroke and heart attack). In situations that are serious or life-threatening, it is best to go to the ED.

In situations that are serious or life-threatening, it is best to go to the ED Click To Tweet

Q: What can I do to speed up the process?

A: When you arrive, have your identification ready as this allows us to link you with the correct medical record and start a record for your care. It is important to know your history, including allergies, past medical conditions and surgeries because the more we know, the quicker we intervene.

Q: What can I expect when I arrive?

A: You will be greeted by a nurse who will ask you if you are seeking medical attention. This nurse will determine your level of care based on your medical complaint.

Q: Why am I getting tests/treatment done before I see a doctor?

A: The Medical Director has designed protocols to help speed up the care when the ED is busy. Protocols are tests/treatment that can be completed before you are placed in the room. Examples include X-rays, CT scans, intravenous fluid and medication for nausea.

Q: What should I bring with me?

A: It is important to have a list of the medications that you are taking (including herbal supplements) with the name, dose, how often you take the medication and the last time you took the medication. 

Q: I got here first, why did they take someone before me?

A: Patients are brought back to a treatment room based on the medical complaint, test results, type of treatment needed and the type of room available. Please note that a patient may be taken back for X-rays and blood work then return back to the waiting area until a room becomes available.

Q: What is the busiest time? Least busy?

A: Historically the middle of the week tends to be busier and after 11 a.m. Waiting can be difficult, and wait times are dependent on how many patients are in the department and how many diagnostic tests are required for your care. Please know that we are working hard to expedite your care and apologize for any inconvenience it may cause. We are dedicated to keeping you informed of your plan of care.