How ERs work: The ins and outs + helpful tips

Understanding the process may help you cope better with a stressful situation

Going to the emergency room (ER) can be a distressing experience. And it raises plenty of questions: Who do I talk to first? Who will see me? How long will I have to wait?

It’s no wonder many of us find it daunting. But here’s the bottom line: If you’re in a life-threatening or dangerous situation, the ER is the best and safest place for you.

If you find yourself there, knowing how an ER generally works may help you stay calm and confident as you navigate each step of the way.

What you can expect

Here’s expert information and tips from the American College of Emergency Physicians: 

1. Checking in.

Look for the front desk when you enter the ER. And check in with the staff there. They’ll ask for basic information — such as your name, address, date of birth, health plan ID card and why you’re coming to the ER. If you arrive by ambulance, you or your family may be asked for this information.

Tip: Be sure to tell the staff if you are pregnant or have any other medical conditions.

2. Assessing the situation.

In most ERs, a triage nurse decides which patients will be seen first, based on the seriousness of their condition. You might be briefly examined when you first arrive. If your condition isn’t urgent, this may happen later. The most critically ill and injured people are always seen first in the ER.

Tip: Tell the triage nurse about all of your symptoms, including if you’re in pain.

3. Waiting your turn.

If you don’t need immediate help, you’ll wait until the doctor is able to see you. If the ER is crowded and your condition is stable, this could take a long time, even hours.

Tip: If your symptoms get worse while you’re waiting, alert the ER staff.

4. Seeing the doctor.

When it’s your turn, a doctor will see you to decide how to evaluate or treat your condition. The doctor may order tests, such as X-rays or bloodwork, before deciding on the next step.

Tip: Speak up if you have any questions. If you don’t understand or follow instructions, you may wind up back in the ER.

5. Going home.

You may be treated and released from the ER. Or you may be admitted to the hospital. If you’re sent home, you’ll be given written instructions on how to care for yourself.

Tip: Always follow up with your primary doctor after a visit to the ER. Even if you feel fine, it’s important for your doctor to know about the care you received.

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