What to Know About Going to the Emergency Room

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 09, 2022
5 min read

Hospital emergency rooms (or departments) deal with sudden illnesses and injuries. They maintain preparedness for every kind of health emergency, including vehicular accidents, heart attacks, strokes, falls, fractures, and other dangerous situations. They offer services round the clock, 365 days a year. They have specially qualified and trained doctors, nurses, and other staff to respond to every kind of adult or childhood medical emergency. Doctors at emergency rooms are usually trained and board certified in emergency medicine.

When you have a medical problem, you must decide between your regular healthcare provider, an urgent care center, an emergency room, and calling 911. Your regular doctor may not be available at night and on weekends. Urgent care centers are often available late into the evening and on weekends but have somewhat limited abilities. Emergency rooms operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Your choice will depend on the severity of your illness or injury.

An emergency room is a hospital department that cares for people with dangerous health conditions. They are equipped and staffed to provide life-saving services and other emergency care. If you're severely ill, they'll send you on for admission to the hospital. If you don't need admission, you'll be sent home after the initial treatment to complete treatment with your own doctor. Emergency room design is optimized for quick, short-term care.

Emergency rooms use a priority system. The most seriously ill or injured patients are cared for first. If you go with a minor problem, expect to wait for your turn. 

The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, better known as EMTALA, was passed by Congress in 1986. This act requires emergency rooms and ambulances to provide treatment to everyone, irrespective of citizenship, legal status, or ability to pay for the treatment. The law makes no provision for reimbursement.

Emergency rooms are the only sector of the American healthcare system that provides treatment without requiring payment or proof of insurance. But this has led to overcrowding and over-utilization of their services. Long waiting times are common. Emergency rooms are often crowded, with full waiting rooms. You may have to spend some time in the emergency room hallway.

Emergency rooms don't take appointments and may have long wait times. Compared to a visit to your own healthcare provider, it's a much less comfortable experience. You should only go there for severe conditions when waiting would be dangerous. Some such situations:

  • Vehicular accidents with major injuries
  • Unconsciousness
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness of an arm or leg or face drooping
  • Breathlessness
  • Bleeding that doesn't stop after 10 minutes
  • Seizures (fits)
  • Poisoning
  • Head injury
  • Allergic reactions and insect bite reactions
  • Bone fractures
  • Vomiting or coughing blood
  • Suicidal or murderous thoughts

If you reach the emergency room by ambulance or are unconscious, you will receive immediate treatment. In other situations, a triage nurse will assess your condition. They will measure your pulse, blood pressure, temperature, respiratory rate, capillary refill time, ability to follow commands, and other vital signs. This is a part of triage, the process of determining which patients need to be seen first. People without a pulse, with severe breathing difficulty or absent breathing, oxygen saturation under 90%, symptoms of mental changes, or who are unresponsive are considered to be in immediate need of life-saving interventions. Such patients get treated immediately.

The staff will then move you to an examination area. A doctor specializing in emergency medicine will examine you and begin your treatment. They may order tests like X-rays, electrocardiogram (EKG), and others, depending on your health problem. The doctor will then discuss your problem and results with you and advise admission to the hospital, if necessary. If your condition doesn't need admission, they'll give you written instructions about treatment to be followed at home.

Other staff will ask you for your name, address, ID, and other details. They will also ask about your medical history.

Should you do it at all? Judge the seriousness of the situation carefully. Emergency rooms treat the most severely ill patients first. If you have only a minor problem, you might wait a long time. Going to a nearby urgent care center might serve you better. Emergency room care is also more expensive than other places.

When going to the emergency room, take a few steps to make sure your visit goes well:

  • Carry all your relevant medical information. Your allergies, chronic conditions, and drug intolerances are important. Also, have the contact information for your regular provider. The emergency room can send them information about your problem and your treatment. This will help your doctor update your medical records and continue treatment when you visit them.
  • If you can consult your regular doctor by telemedicine (or they have an out-of-hours answering service), ask them to call ahead to the emergency room. It might save you some waiting time in the waiting room or hallway. It will ensure that your medical history and the current problem are known to the emergency room doctor.
  • Carry your health insurance card if you can locate it immediately at home or have it in your wallet. In an emergency, please don't waste time looking for it. An emergency room will provide you with care without insurance information. 
  • Speak up. Your regular doctor knows you and has your records on file. The emergency room people don't. Communicate all your problems to the emergency room staff. Show them all your current prescriptions.
  • It's sensible to ask your doctor regularly for recommendations about emergency rooms. They may advise you about one nearest your home or direct you to one in a hospital where they regularly visit patients.
  • Unless you're very sick, be prepared to wait. Carry something to pass the time. If you think you may need to be admitted to the hospital, carry a change of clothes and toiletries.
  • If you're not admitted, ask for copies of all reports and documentation of the visit to show your doctor.

An emergency room is a valuable service, but you must use it wisely. The care is expensive, and seeing so many severely sick and injured people while you wait can be disturbing. Before visiting an emergency room, assess your condition and consider whether it's possible to wait for your own doctor to be available.