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Summer Health Survival Guide

Insider’s Guide to the Emergency Room

Knowing how to navigate an ER can save time, frustration―even a life. Medical experts advise on how to make your next trip as painless as possible.

By Karen L. Smith
Emergency vehicle at the scene of an emergencyScott & Zoe

What happens if your child or elderly parent goes to the ER when he or she is with a caregiver?

In a life-threatening situation, emergency-room staff will always make treating the patient top priority. But when the patient’s condition is not critical, a child or an elderly person brought in by a caregiver may find a reduced delay for treatment if the caregiver has a notarized consent-to-treat form signed by you. The website of the American College of Emergency Physicians offers a printable form for treating children at For an elderly parent, the caregiver should have access to a legal document called an advance directive. This form serves as a combined durable power of attorney for health care and a living will. You can print out an advance-directive form at the website of the American Academy of Family Physicians (; the signatures of two witnesses are required).

Who are all those people at the ER?

It’s common to feel as if you’re being shuffled along a production line. Here’s whom you’ll probably meet, in order, on your next visit.

  • Greeter. A nonmedical staff member who may ask what help you need and relay that information to the triage nurse.
  • Triage nurse. The person who takes your vital signs (temperature, pulse, blood pressure, respiratory rate) and decides your place in the line based on your condition and its severity.
  • Registration clerk. The person with the clipboard who takes down personal information (name, age, address, insurance details) to generate your medical record and ID bracelet and labels for tests.
  • Primary nurse. Your point person once you’re admitted. On orders of the doctor, the primary nurse may arrange for you to have X-rays or blood and urine tests and may give you medications.
  • Emergency physician. The doctor who “bounces from patient to patient like a good waiter at a busy restaurant,” says physician Mark Morocco, a director of emergency medicine in Los Angeles.
  • Emergency technician. He or she assists nurses, stocks the ER, and helps transport patients between departments.
  • Patient advocate. Typically a social worker or a nurse skilled in mediation. This person may circulate through the waiting room periodically to make sure that no patient is being overlooked. The advocate can assist in placing patients in follow-up care programs and facilities.

Are there any shortcuts to getting in and out faster?

If by “shortcut” you mean jumping queues, then no. “ERs are democratic,” says J. Stephen Bohan, an emergency-medicine physician in Boston. Patients move according to the severity of the injury or illness. If you have a noncritical emergency and can choose a time to go, opt for 4 A.M. to 9 A.M., usually the quietest period, and avoid the peak hours of noon to 10 P.M. Some hospitals have urgent-care/fast-track clinics for patients who need immediate aid but have only minor illnesses or injuries that don’t require the hospital facilities of an emergency room. Check for a list of urgent-care centers by state.

Read More About:Hospitals & Insurance

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