Should You Go to the ER?

January 6, 2012 

Emergency Department Officials Offer Advice

Is it a medical emergency or can it wait until a doctor’s office visit the next day? Deciding whether to head to the hospital emergency department or wait it out for a clinic visit can sometimes be a tough call. While you should err on the side of caution, ER officials offer some general guidelines to help patients decide.

“The main consideration is does the problem require urgent attention?” says Robert Peterson, MD, an emergency room physician with Riverside Medical Center in Waupaca.

Specifically, Dr. Peterson advises that people experiencing these conditions head straight to the ER:

  •  Chest pains
  • Symptoms of stroke, such as difficulty speaking or using one side of the body
  • Severe or unusual headache with a stiff neck or fever
  • Cuts that require stitches
  • Possible broken bone(s)
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Abdominal pain with fever or pain that is increasing

“Most coughs, sore throats, ear aches and back aches can wait to be seen in the office,” added Dr. Peterson. “Patients should treat these symptoms with Tylenol and call the office first thing in the morning if the problem is not better.”

While no one will be turned away from the ER, common illnesses and minor injuries that are not true emergencies are better treated in a primary care setting, which can offer follow-up and future preventive care for patients, said Dave Rae, manager of acute care services at New London Family Medical Center.  

“Emergency departments are over-qualified to provide that care, and it’s also more expensive for the patient and the health care system,” said Rae.

When there is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention, deciding how to get to the ER is also an important decision, Rae said.  In the event of uncontrolled bleeding, or symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, always call 911 and request an ambulance, he said.

“When someone has a heart attack, time is heart muscle and paramedics can begin the protocol to restore the blood flow to the heart,” Rae said.

If you are able, remember to bring identification and insurance cards with you, as well as medical information about yourself when you head to the ER, Rae suggests. A list of medications and dosages you are taking is important to have, as is a list of any allergies, medical conditions and prior surgeries.

“If you don’t have a list, you can just grab your prescription bottles and bring them with you,” added Rae.

If you’ve decided that your health problem doesn’t warrant a trip to the ER, but you still need advice, patients can call ThedaCare On Call, a 24-hour health information line which is staffed by registered nurses. The on-call nurse, who has instant access to ThedaCare patients’ electronic medical records, can answer questions, review doctors’ notes, track prescriptions and set up next-day appointments.  ThedaCare On Call can be reached at 920-830-6877, or toll free at 800-236-2236.