ER 101

What to Expect in the Emergency Department

NurseVisiting an emergency department can be daunting and stressful. But knowing what to expect can help relieve some of your anxieties.

After checking in at the counter, you’ll be referred to a triage nurse, who is specially trained to assess the severity of patients’ conditions and then sort them according to how serious they are. This system allows patients with life-threatening conditions to be seen first. “Don’t eat or drink anything until you see a nurse,” cautions William Briggs, RN, MSN, CEN, FAEN, who is president of the Emergency Nurses Association. “Otherwise, it may interfere with a test or your ability to have surgery.”

The triage nurse will discuss your symptoms and do a brief exam, which normally includes taking your vital signs — blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate, and temperature — and checking what’s wrong, whether it’s a stomachache, sliced arm, sprained ankle, or difficulty breathing.

Don’t minimize your symptoms. And make sure you tell the nurse about any chronic health problems; medications you’re taking (prescribed, over the counter, and herbal); any allergies; recent trips overseas; whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding; and any other key facts that relate to your health. “This isn’t the time to be a hero,” says Briggs. “You want to give a truthful account because we can only work with good information to make an accurate decision.”

On the basis of this information, the nurse will determine the seriousness of your complaints, which may range from life threatening (conditions that could become deadly if left untreated) to less urgent illnesses or injuries. The triage nurse might also order diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, an EKG, or blood and urine samples, and do minor first-aid procedures, such as applying ice packs, cleaning wounds, or treating a child’s fever.

You might be asked to wait while more critically ill people are treated first. The staff understands that waiting can be frustrating, but they’ll do their best to keep your wait time to a minimum. If your symptoms worsen, alert the triage nurse immediately.

Once you see a doctor, he or she will do an exam to determine if you need additional tests. Most likely, you can be treated in the emergency department. If more extensive tests are needed or special care, such as surgery, is required, you might be admitted into the hospital.

When you’re discharged from the ER, you’ll be given written instructions on how to care for your illness or injury, along with any prescriptions you will need. If you have any questions, be sure to ask your doctor or nurse before you leave. Once discharged, if your condition worsens at any time, follow the instructions you’ve been given for a worsening condition or return to the emergency department immediately.

To learn more about a visit to the emergency room, read Who Takes Care of You in an Emergency.

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