Do you know when to go to the Emergency Room or when to choose a Walk-In Clinic (aka Non Urgent Care or Minor Emergency) facility for your health care needs? If you are having chest pain or trouble breathing-which would you choose? What if your child is having an asthma attack or your sister got bitten by a dog? Choosing the correct health care facility is essential to receiving the best care possible in a timely manner and may even save your life or that of a loved one. Here are a few simple tips to help you choose wisely.
Tip # 1. If your emergency involves chest pain, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, go to the Emergency Room. One of the main differences between the emergency room and a minor emergency clinic is the time in which patients are seen. In the ER, all patients go through a triage procedure that works something like this: When you enter the ER you are seen by trained triage personnel, which usually include a nurse, EMT, or paramedic. They take your name, history of your present emergency, and your vital signs. They are trained to prioritize the emergency, that’s what triage means.
As an example, if you present to the ER at 10:00 a.m. with complaints of chest pain, shortness of breath, and high blood pressure, you will most likely be taken immediately taken through the swinging doors into the back treatment area and seen by a doctor, even if the ER waiting room is full. If you arrived at the emergency room one hour before this with a sore throat and fever, you may experience a very long wait, as those with chest pain, bleeding or breathing issues will automatically be seen before you. You may even feel very sick, have severe throat pain and be vomiting, but those with life and death issues will always be seen first. After all, most sore throats won’t kill you but a heart attack can. There is a limited amount of rooms and a limited amount of doctors and nurses staffing the ER so they can only see so many patients at a time. No one likes to wait in the ER but triage is essential for saving lives, even if it is inconvenient for you. If your child or family member can’t breathe, you will be very thankful for the triage system.
Tip # 2. Go to a Walk-In Clinic only when you don’t anticipate the need for further medical treatment past seeing the doctor. By further medical treatment, I mean such things as CT scans, MRI’s, breathing treatments, surgery, or even CPR. When you go to a minor emergency clinic you will be seen in the order in which you arrive.There is no triage system and the people who check you in are non medical personnel. That means they have no medical training and won’t know what constitutes a true emergency. Their job is to get you signed in and your paperwork filled out for insurance purposes.Then you join those in the waiting room and will be seen by the doctor when it is your turn.This sometimes results in delayed care for those who have emergencies and should have gone to the Emergency Room instead of the Walk-In Clinic. Most of these clinics don’t have the equipment to deal with advanced emergencies.
If you go to a Walk-In Clinic with a head injury you may sit in the waiting room for hours. And when you are finally seen, you will probably be sent to the ER so that a CT scan or MRI of your brain can be done. I once saw a man sit in a crowded Clinic waiting room for hours. When he first arrived, he told the receptionist that he was having some chest pain but since he was walking and talking she didn’t think it was an emergency so she didn’t tell anyone or even advise the patient to go to the ER. Neither did she offer to call an ambulance. By the time this patient was seen two hours later, he was in the process of having a full blown heart attack and was rushed to the ER by ambulance, where he later died. The receptionist was not held liable for this because it was beyond her scope of practice to give medical advice and she was just doing her job.
Tip # 3. If you have any doubt of whether to go to a minor emergency clinic or the ER, call your primary care doctor and ask or if you don’t have a doctor, call directly to the ER and ask to speak to a triage nurse. The nurse will have the expertise to help you make the correct choice. Emergencies rooms are meant to be just that- for emergencies only. We can probably all agree on that. What we may not agree on is what constitutes an emergency. When you are in severe pain from a sore throat or your child is screaming with an earache, it may feel like an emergency to you but it won’t be seen as an emergency in the ER triage area. Likewise, someone with a deep laceration to the face should go to the Emergency Room because it will probably require the services of a plastic surgeon, who won’t come to a minor emergency clinic to sew someone up.
In summary, you should choose the Emergency Room with what could be life or death issues; such as chest pain, breathing problems, head injuries, and severe bleeding because the ER will have all the resources at their fingertips to help you. Choose a Walk-In Clinic if you have a sore throat, cough, minor laceration, twisted ankle, or ear ache. And if you’re not sure, call your doctor. Choosing the correct healthcare setting may save your life or that of your loved ones.