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.

Photo by Scott & Zoe

Whoever came up with the expression “to add insult to injury” may have been visiting an emergency room. ERs can be chaotic places, populated by so many bewildered patients and busy staff members brandishing unfamiliar forms that just making your way through one can add a throbbing headache and a foul mood to your list of maladies. To make the experience less of an ordeal, Real Simple asked 10 emergency-medicine specialists to answer the most common ER conundrums, from how to navigate a crowded waiting room to how to get attention from overloaded doctors. With their insider methods under your belt (or hospital gown), you should come away from your next visit with at least your sanity intact.

Is it better to go to the ER in an ambulance or by car?

“When you have chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, altered mental status, or uncontrolled bleeding, have someone call 911,” says ER nurse Connie Meyer. Ambulance workers (emergency medical technicians, or EMTs) are skilled in life-support techniques and will call ahead and alert the ER to set up necessary equipment―especially useful for strokes and heart attacks. “In these cases, the two minutes you save in a car won’t offset the benefit of having qualified personnel en route,” advises internist Marc K. Siegel.
For non-life-threatening injuries (a broken hand, a small laceration), have someone drive you. “In such cases, arriving by ambulance doesn’t equal faster care,” says Meyer.

Which ER should you go to?

EMTs will hustle a critical patient to the nearest ER. But if you are going by car, then you’ll want to do some advance planning. Ask your primary-care physician about the best ERs in your town. Some are known for treating trauma cases (burns, poisoning), while others may have specialists on duty or offer testing not widely available.
Also find out which hospitals are covered by your insurance and where your own doctors have admitting privileges. That hospital will have access to your records, which can expedite the care. Finally, you can look into a hospital’s ratings on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website (

What should you have ready in case of an emergency?

The unanimous answer from medical experts: quick access to your medical background, which they say is crucial for the best care. Besides an insurance card, you should carry a wallet-size medical card that provides a brief, thorough account of your background. (Learn where to go to create one at Keep it behind your driver’s license; if a patient isn’t able to speak, paramedics will always look through a wallet. Here’s what should be on the card.

  • A list of prescription and over-the-counter medications, including dosages, frequency, and any recent changes in them, plus a list of any herbal supplements or vitamins you’re taking.
  • Allergies, even to contrast dye or latex.
  • Any major surgery you’ve had.
  • Doctors’ names and phone numbers.
  • Contact numbers for you and your health-care proxy or next of kin.