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In Case of an Emergency: ER Wait Times Explained and More

If you’re ever waiting in the emergency room, the triage process and how emergencies are handled may feel disconnected or even unorganized, but all is not as it may appear.

Among the most stressful situations you may ever experience is sitting in the waiting area of a hospital emergency room while you or a loved is in pain and discomfort from a sudden injury or illness. By its very nature, you may think, an emergency room is a place where waiting for care should never be necessary.

But that may not be realistic. There may be many other patients – some whose conditions may be acute and require more time-sensitive care. Others may already be in the ER, away from view, having bypassed the waiting room entirely because they entered via ambulances.

Nobody ever expects to have to go to an ER, but here are some things to know if you do, so your experience won’t be quite so stressful or frustrating.

What you should do before going to the emergency room.

Contact your regular doctor for non-acute conditions such as earaches, minor fevers and sunburns. Your physician has your complete medical history and should be able to make a recommendation to make you comfortable or advise if an emergency room visit is needed.

If you visit the ER, be prepared with a detailed description of your medical emergency. If you are concerned that you will be unable to effectively communicate your condition to staff, you are welcome to bring a friend or family member to help, or utilize the qualified services available at the hospital to help you.

If you have a chronic illness, try to keep an updated file containing any relevant test results, allergies, current medications and physician reports handy. Take this with you to your emergency room visit. This will assist the ER staff with assessing your condition and can possibly save time and money by preventing duplication of diagnostic tests.

Are masks required in the Emergency Room?

Yes. In order to ensure adequate protection against COVID-19 – for your safety and others – hospitals in the Jefferson Health system require everyone over the age of two to wear a mask. If you do not have one, the ER can provide one.

I arrived first. Why was another patient seen ahead of me?

Patients are seen based on a “triage system” – that is, the severity of the patient’s condition. Every new patient is given an initial medical evaluation. Patients with a critical illness or injury are seen first. Children are triaged and sorted separately from adult patients, because they are treated by different doctors.

Why do I have to wait before seeing an ER doctor?

Wait times may vary, depending on the volume of patients, availability of treatment rooms and the nature of your illness or injury. Ambulances and helicopters carrying critically injured or ill patients may also increase the wait time for “walk-in” ER patients. If you have a concern about wait times, or there is a change in your condition while waiting, please see an ER triage nurse.

The waiting room isn’t very crowded with patients. Why am I still waiting?

Just because things are slow and quiet where you are doesn’t mean circumstances are the same in the ER itself. Ambulances and helicopters may have directly delivered some especially urgent cases, ranging from patients badly hurt in automobile accidents to others who have suffered severe burns, sudden heart attacks or strokes.  These patients must be given priority.

Does the ER prioritize seeing children before adults?

There are two parallel queues in the ER: one for patients under 18 years of age, and one for patients 18 and older. The triage process is applied to both queues, and patients are seen based on both their level of severity and the time of their arrival.

Why are so many people asking me the same questions about my symptoms and my medical history?

Most hospitals are teaching hospitals, and therefore provide medical education and training to future and current health professionals under the direct or indirect supervision of a senior medical clinician. It is not uncommon for medical students who are being trained to ask questions to document your symptoms and obtain your medical history. An attending physician may ask you the same or similar questions to ensure and verify that a complete picture of your symptoms and a comprehensive medical history are obtained to properly treat you. The goal of teaching hospitals is to create an environment where medical students and new doctors can learn to practice medicine in a safe setting which is supervised by physicians who provide education and oversight.

I have seen the doctor. Why do I need to wait before leaving or being admitted?

The doctor may order further testing, such as radiology or blood work, to help with diagnosis and treatment. You may need to wait to receive these tests, and wait some more for the results to become available for the doctor to review.

[Main photo credit: Steve Belkowitz]

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