What Is an Emergency Medicine Doctor?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on July 07, 2023
4 min read

Emergency medicine doctors primarily work in the emergency departments, or emergency “rooms.” Urgent care facility staff also include emergency medicine doctors. 

Emergency medicine doctors stabilize and treat patients who are experiencing acute health problems or traumatic injuries. Some patients can be treated and released from the emergency room, and others need to be admitted to the hospital or further assessed by other specialists. Emergency medicine doctors make these decisions throughout their workdays.

Emergency medicine doctors assess and treat patients in the emergency department, regardless of their illness or injury type. Their main focus is to stabilize patients as quickly as possible and determine the next best step. 

Emergency physicians treat patients from all walks of life and all ages: men and women; adults and children. They treat various illnesses at every stage, including patients with diseases and conditions related to neurology, cardiology, pulmonology, renal issues, gastrointestinal problems, orthopedic concerns, pregnancy, gynecology, dermatology, and psychiatry. 

In cases where a patient has experienced serious trauma, is unconscious, or currently experiencing symptoms of conditions like stroke or a heart attack, the emergency medicine doctor will immediately begin treatment. 

Emergency medicine doctors handle multiple patients at once. They need to quickly triage patients as they come according to their symptoms — life-threatening conditions take top priority. This is why you may experience a long wait when you visit an emergency room or urgent care facility for treatment. 

Emergency medicine doctors sometimes refer cases to trauma surgeons who are on call and ready to perform emergency surgery. These two specialties are often confused with one another but are two separate roles. 

All medical doctors and surgeons start off with the same medical school training. After graduation, doctors enter their residency and begin working toward specialties. 

This process involves completing:

  • An average of four years in medical school
  • A three or four-year residency 

In a true emergency, like a serious auto accident, you may be taken to the emergency department of a hospital in an ambulance. In a true emergency, you should call 911. Sometimes, it can be more challenging to determine whether you should head to the ER:

Breathing Issues 

For severe breathing issues, call 911. Other concerning breathing issues include an asthma attack you can’t get under control, inability to draw a deep breath, or signs of a restricted airway like tightness in the throat and chest.

Head, Neck, and Spine Injuries

Call 911 for head injuries with fainting or confusion and injuries to the neck and spine, especially if there is a feeling or inability to move. Emergency room doctors often diagnose concussions and issues related to these parts of the body.

Heavy Bleeding

Heavy bleeding that you can’t get under control is an emergency situation. Whether the source of the bleeding is an injury or another cause, this symptom is worthy of a trip to the emergency room.

Chest Pain

Severe chest pain and pressure is a significant emergency medical symptom that could indicate a heart attack is occurring. Call 911. Another potential sign of heart attack includes pain in the arm or jaw.

Stroke Symptoms 

Symptoms of a stroke include the sudden loss of the ability to speak, see, walk or move, suddenly weak or “drooping” on one side of the body, and slurred speech. Stroke is a condition that needs to be treated immediately to reduce the risk of permanent damage or death. 

Other common reasons people head to the emergency room include sudden, severe headache, a possible broken bone, concussion, and deep cuts, and other wounds. 

If your medical problem is not life-threatening or severe, but you feel it is serious and your primary care provider is not available, consider an urgent care clinic. Urgent cares handle issues like:

  • Severe colds and flu
  • Ear infections
  • Sore throat
  • Migraine headaches
  • Rashes
  • Minor injuries like sprains, minor cuts and burns, broken bones, and minor eye injuries

Unless you arrive by ambulance, when you arrive at the emergency department, you’ll need to check in with medical staff. They will collect information like your name, address, and insurance numbers. You’ll also need to describe why you are seeking help so the staff can decide how to prioritize your needs. 

Emergency medicine doctors approach cases from different angles, depending on the health concern. Possibilities include:

  • Physical examinations, which might include checking vital signs and examinations of the ear, nose, and throat 
  • Patient consultation (discussion about the patient’s symptoms)
  • Blood tests like CBC (complete blood count), chemistry profile, arterial blood gas (ABS), blood alcohol, and pregnancy tests
  • Urinalysis
  • EKG
  • Imaging tests like x-rays, MRI, CT scans, and ultrasounds

Your emergency medicine doctor test will evaluate the results of their examination and any tests you have performed to determine what should happen next. You can expect one of the following outcomes:

  • Return home with no further care needed (for example, if your problem is mild and resolves on its own or is cured at the ER)
  • Return home with care instructions 
  • Return home with medical equipment like supplemental oxygen or a catheter 
  • Make an appointment with your general practitioner
  • Make an appointment with a specialist
  • Be admitted to the hospital for observation

Undergo emergency surgery