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Home > Health Topics > Healthy Outlook > Not an Emergency? Avoid the ER

Not an Emergency? Avoid the ER

Published by Contra Costa Times
Posted on Wednesday, May 18, 2011
By Dr. Brenda Reilly

Emergency rooms are vital to communities and provide lifesaving care every hour of every day for accidents, major injuries, heart attacks and major illnesses, but they aren't the best place to get routine health care, or even the best places for minor pains and complaints.

Nearly 80% of visits to emergency rooms are not for emergencies or even urgencies. In addition to experiencing added expenses and long waits, patients may expose themselves to others who are sick in hospital waiting rooms. So how do you know when you really need to go to the emergency room?

Next time you have what appears to be an emergency, take a minute to evaluate your situation before rushing to the nearest emergency room. If it's a true emergency, call 911. The first minutes after an injury or medical crisis are often the most critical.

If your situation isn't severe and is unlikely to result in disability or death, it may be better to contact your regular health provider for care. Chronic pain is not usually a reason to go to the emergency room.

During an emergency it's best to remain calm and ask yourself if life or limb is at risk. For example, chest pain can be a sign of a heart attack, and sudden weakness in an arm or leg, or change in vision can be symptoms of a stroke. Call 911 immediately with these symptoms. Also, any trouble breathing may be a sign of something serious.

Examples of emergency room situations are:

  • Uncontrollable bleeding or deep cuts
  • Severe, persistent abdominal pain, particularly with a fever
  • Loss of consciousness or altered level of consciousness
  • Inability to breathe/talk or extreme weakness
  • Chest pain that is associated with nausea, sweating, or jaw or left arm pain
  • Eye injury or blindness
  • Head injury or broken bones
  • Poisoning or overdose of medications
  • Trauma and accidents, such as stab wounds, falls or blunt force

Remember to consider your past medical history and age, as some health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and asthma can make a routine illness much more severe. It may also be a good idea to use a thermometer to check for fever. Fever (generally over 101) may signify a more serious illness.

If you don't know whether your situation warrants a visit to the emergency room, call your regular health care provider or advice nurse for help. If instructed by them, go to the emergency room at the nearest hospital. Always try to bring a list of your usual medications.

For non-urgent illnesses and injuries, schedule a short-notice (one to three day appointment) with your regular health care provider. He or she knows your history and will be best suited to provide care that is tailored to you.

If you use these guidelines to help assess your situation, you'll probably make the right decision.

Quick Tip: May 12 was bike to work day, but every day is good for bicycling. Grab your two-wheeler and helmet, and pedal to work. Exercise helps prevent heart attacks, strokes and cancer. It might just keep you out of that emergency room!

If you need help obtaining health insurance or finding low- or no-cost health care, visit

Dr. Reilly is the Medical Director of the Emergency Department at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center.

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