Nine Things to Expect at the ER

We’ve all seen emergency rooms on TV, but what do you need to know when it’s real life?

We interviewed doctors, nurses, EMTs, volunteers, and other staff members in the emergency room of Woodwinds Hospital in Woodbury, Minnesota to find their top tips about what to expect on your next visit to the ER.

  1. Know your medications.
    • Bring a list of all the medications that you are currently taking.

    • “Hearing a patient say, ‘It’s a small white pill,’” says Shannon T., an emergency nurse, “is very difficult…it helps a lot if the patient can tell us exactly what medicines they’re currently taking.”

    WHN TIP: Medical Vaccinations Sheet

    Print out a copy of our Medical Appointment Tracking Form (pdf). Fill it out, keep it updated and bring with you to your next ER visit.

    WHN TIP:

    Don't have a list yet? Bring the med bottles and containers themselves.

  2. A nurse needs to find out your basic medical information before a doctor can see you.
    • If you rush to the ER with an urgent complaint, it may seem unnecessary to have your nurse listen to your heart, take your temperature, get your height and weight and ask about the meds you’re taking.
    • Why is this important? According to Anne B., “how much you weigh determines what dosage of medicine your doctors and nurses can give you.”
    • There are also certain medications that cannot be given if you are taking other meds. Answer all the ER staff questions - even if they are the same over and over again.
  3. Be honest with the doctors and nurses.
    • “Tell us exactly what you were doing when you [started to feel sick or] hurt yourself,” says Anne C. “We use everything you tell us to try to figure out what’s wrong with you, so if you don’t tell us that you ate five pieces of cake before your stomach started hurting—or that you drank a bottle of wine before you fell down the stairs--we won’t have all the information that we need to help you.”

  4. Once you enter the ER, don’t eat, drink, or use the bathroom without asking your nurse first.
    • Some medications, X-rays, and other tests work best on a relatively empty stomach. Your doctor may also need a urine specimen for various tests - so if you need to go to the bathroom, Shannon T. says, “Ask your nurse if they need you to bring a ‘cup’ along!”

  5. Realize that the ER works in cooperation with many other departments.
    • If you get an X-ray, a radiologist will have to read the X-ray before you find out where your bone is broken.
    • If you have blood drawn, it will typically take 60-90 minutes for your results to be read by the lab.
    • If there are delays in these auxiliary departments, your wait time may be extended. Realize that these problems are often out of your nurse’s control.

  6. If you have a specific need - don’t be afraid to ask!
    • If you’re uncomfortable, ask, “Could I have an extra pillow?” “Could I have a warm blanket?” There’s a good chance that you’ll get what you ask for.

    WHN TIP: Kids and Making the Wait Easier

    Many hospitals have a “toy closet” to keep children entertained during long waits. If you have children, ask if the ER has a toy closet.

  7. You may have to wait.
    • In an ER, “we have to see the most critical patients first,” Anne B.*, an emergency nurse, says, “so we hope that the people who need med refills or strep tests understand that they may have to wait.”
    • Many hospitals use a ranking system to assign priority levels to patients on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being the most urgent). For example, a “1” might indicate a life-threatening motor vehicle accident, while a “5” might be a prescription refill.
    • Sarah K., an emergency nurse, suggests bringing a book, magazine, or other item to keep you busy: “You will almost always have to wait, but the time goes by much faster if you have something to look at.”
  8. Some ERs have “Fast Track” options for complaints that are relatively minor. Ask if your ER has that option when you first arrive and check in.
    • If your complaint is minor, ask your nurse if you could be assigned to a Fast Track or observation room. Woodwinds Hospital has observation rooms for patients whose complaints can be resolved relatively quickly.

  9. Before you leave, get your discharge instructions in writing.
    • If you are allowed to go home, make sure that you understand further xcare instructions.
    • If you get crutches, your doctor or nurse should let you try them out and make sure that you know how to use them.
    • If you’re given medication, you should be told how many times a day you need to take it, and for how long. As Katie S., an emergency room volunteer, says, “Don’t be afraid to ask us—we’d be happy to tell you!”

Thanks to the staff of the Woodwinds ER for sharing their insights with us!

*Names have been changed to protect staff and patient confidentiality.

The information provided here is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice. These tips are from doctors, nurses and people who have shared their real life advice; always check with a doctor, pharmacist or other appropriate medical professional you trust before making any healthcare changes.

Want more information about visiting your doctor’s office or hospital? Check out our Be Prepared: Doctor Visit and Be Prepared-Hospital articles.

Updated: 5/2009