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Are my symptoms bad enough for the ER?

Like most emergency room (ER) patrons, you have come to seek immediate medical care at a 24-hour facility. But how does a patient know when it’s appropriate to make use of the emergency room or just wait for your primary care physician to see you?

Dorian Drigalla, MD, FACEP, Residency Program director, Department of Emergency Medicine in Temple, said patients should ask themselves if their illness or ailment is something that wouldn’t normally be seen in a doctor’s office.

In a given seven-day week, there are 168 hours; a doctor’s office is open 40 of those hours unless they offer evening and weekend hours. That means that two-thirds of the week patients don’t have another option for medical care.

“There are a lot of people who can’t afford to miss work and don’t want to miss work. They don’t have access to medical care during the hours they’re not working,” Dr. Drigalla said. “Patients need medical care when they can get it.”

During peak hours, the ER is not only being bombarded with patients walking in off the street, but they’re getting patients from other facilities, transfers from doctor’s offices and patients being rushed to the hospital by ambulance.

So, they inevitably choose the ER to take care of their medical needs.

But with all of these patients looking for immediate medical assistance or convenient healthcare, do emergency rooms get crowded?

“They definitely can,” he said. “The majority of the patients come in after the lunchtime hour, leading up to midnight or one in the morning. Because most of these patients come in over the span of half the day, we’re typically able to see as many patients as needed.”

However, the number of patients seen in a certain amount of time is limited to the physical size of the ER.

“No matter how many doctors or nurses we have at one time, we find that we run out of room,” Dr. Drigalla said.

During peak hours, the ER is not only being bombarded with patients walking in off the street, but they’re getting patients from other facilities, transfers from doctor’s offices and patients being rushed to the hospital by ambulance.

“The vast majority of the patients being transferred-in need immediate care and are sort of demanding the space available,” he said. “And usually, the patient with the least severe problem is going to wait.”

Speeding up the process

But there are ways to speed up the process so you can be seen faster.

Patients should bring as much information with them as they can that explains what their problem is. It is also important to have someone there who was present at the time of the first symptoms or someone who knows the information, especially when the patient isn’t able to give the whole history.

Having identification and proof of insurance coverage helps expedite the administrative side of things and gets the patient registered and seen in a more timely fashion, the doctor said.

Even though you might wait a little longer and pay a little more for an ER visit, Dr. Drigalla said if you have any doubt about whether or not you have an emergency, don’t delay medical care.

Symptoms that could prevent you from driving yourself to the ER include:

  • Vision blurring/vision loss
  • Confusion / altered mental status
  • Inability to use/injury to an extremity
  • Seizure
  • Chest Pain
  • Any severe pain
  • Head injury
  • Shortness of breath
  • Bleeding that won’t stop (persistent bleeding)
  • Any new area of numbness or weakness
  • Slurring speech

Many of the above could worsen while driving and cause an accident. You could experience a repeat seizure, worsening of chest pain, shortness of breath or stroke symptoms like numbness or weakness.

If you have any of the above symptoms, call 911 immediately.

In the case of an emergency, know where to find your nearest hospital. 

About the author

Jessa McClure
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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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Are my symptoms bad enough for the ER?