When to visit the emergency department

February 6, 2015| Health and Wellbeing /

Most of us could comfortably treat a minor scrape or manage a low-grade fever at home, but if you, or someone close to you, is seriously hurt or becomes very unwell it’s time to visit the emergency department.

An emergency department is a hospital’s front line, managing, and possibly diagnosing and treating, patients who present with acute medical conditions. Operating seven days a week, these departments are equipped to handle most emergency and trauma situations.

Emergency departments, whether public or private, are open to anyone. If you visit a private hospital there will be an upfront non-refundable fee.

Patients should visit an emergency department if they experience any of the following conditions:

  • Unexplained fever, especially if accompanied by drowsiness or skin rashes
  • Unexplained headaches
  • Sport injuries
  • Stroke like symptoms including facial or arm weakness and difficulty with speech
  • Symptoms of a heart attack including sudden, severe pain, chest discomfort or difficulty breathing
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Excessive bleeding
  • Deep lacerations  
  • Poisoning, suspected poisoning or drug overdose
  • Broken bones
  • Serious burns
  • Loss of consciousness

It’s not always easy to decide if an emergency department is where you should be. For serious but not life-threatening conditions, factors that may influence your decision include:

  • The time of day. For example if your condition develops outside of business hours when a GP is not available.
  • The availability and suitability of other services such as 24-hour clinics.
  • The advice of phone services such as the Department of Health Victoria’s NURSE-ON-CALL service.

“There are no hard and fast rules,” says Ron Sultana, Director of Emergency Medicine at Epworth Richmond.

“At the end of the day, if you’re concerned you should come to an emergency department and be assessed.”

What to expect

An emergency department is an unscheduled service. Much like a supermarket or bank, the length of time it will take for you to be seen will be dependent on who else is there. You’ll be treated as soon as possible, but someone who arrives after you with a more serious condition is likely to be treated first.

The first person you’ll see when you arrive will assess both your condition and the priority of your care. Even if your doctor refers you to emergency you’ll still have to be assessed.

Staff will need to build a very detailed understanding of your condition in a very short amount of time so you’ll be asked a lot of questions. It can be useful to have someone with you to help with this and, if your medication is close by, to bring it along.

There’s a good chance you’ll receive treatment and be sent home, possibly with a referral.

If you’re at a private hospital and you need to be admitted you’ll need to have private health insurance or be prepared to pay for an inpatient stay. Uninsured patients are generally given the option to transfer to a public hospital, depending on the availability of beds.

Epworth Richmond's Emergency Department (24/7) can be found at 34 Erin Street, Richmond VIC.

Phone 03 9426 6303.

Epworth Geelong's Emergency Department (8am - midnight, seven days) can be found at 1A Epworth Place, Waurn Ponds, VIC.

Phone 03 5271 7000.

In an emergency, always call 000 first.

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