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.
What’s the best way to advocate for yourself? What’s the worst way?Be calm but persistent and assertive, says emergency physician Linda Lawrence. It’s OK to be a (polite) squeaky wheel if your needs aren’t being met. If the nearest staff member can’t help you, ask to speak to the nurse supervisor. If you still aren’t making any headway, ask for the name of the patient advocate.
To get more attention from the staff, never:
- Be rude or combative. This can cause extreme resentment in staffs that Siegel describes as “overworked and stressed.”
- Lie about or exaggerate symptoms. This will make it tougher for your doctor to make a diagnosis and can lead to unnecessary testing and harm.
- Call 911 from the waiting room (yes, it happens).
What do you do if your condition worsens while you’re waiting?Speak up. Go to the nurse (sometimes the only medical staff member you’ll have access to in the waiting room) or the doctor in charge and ask him or her to repeat your vitals because you’re feeling worse.
When you’re being seen by the doctor, what kind of information should you volunteer?If you have your wallet-size medical card, you’re already a step ahead. Don’t edit; give a complete history of how the symptoms began, what affected them, and any other information you feel might be relevant. (For example, you’re nauseated. Were you recently out of the country? Did you eat something unusual? Or you have a pain in your side. Were you ever diagnosed with kidney stones or ovarian cysts?) Sometimes patients, especially teenagers, clam up when family and friends are present, so don’t be surprised if a physician asks others to step out while he speaks with the patient privately.
How will you know if you should see a specialist?The ER doctor will tell you, but you can always ask. For example, if you have a broken wrist, you could ask, “Do you think an orthopedic surgeon might have a role here?” Hospitals have specialists on call, but if one isn’t available and your situation is not critical, you may need to see one after you are discharged.
What should you do if the doctors are pushing for release and you don’t feel that you or your family member is ready to leave?Although overcrowding is a real problem, ERs are careful about not pushing people out the door. Ask the attending doctor to reassess the case. If you still disagree, ask to see the patient advocate.
What should you ask the doctor before you leave?Ask for contact numbers in case you feel worse later. In addition, most hospitals discharge you with a blizzard of paper about the condition that brought you there, plus preprinted at-home care instructions that they can amend with specifics, like warning signs that you aren’t healing properly. Both you and a second person should scrutinize the instructions and seek needed clarification from the attending doctor or nurse before leaving, even if they’re hustling you out of your room. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like: “For how long should I take my medicine? What are the possible side effects? Will it interfere with other drugs? What activities should I avoid? When and with whom do I follow up?” Having a better understanding of the ailment that brought you in, plus the follow-up care it requires, will increase the chances that you won’t have to make a return visit.