AMU Emergency Management Original Public Safety

Helping ER Patients to Better Understand True Emergencies

By Allison G. S. Knox
Edge Contributor

Recently, a Canadian article by Peterborough County City paramedics suggested that the concept of a medical emergency is subjective, depending upon an individual’s viewpoint. When people go to an emergency department, they always consider their medical problem as an emergency that needs treatment immediately.

But as most medical professionals know, the definition of “emergencies” is subjective. Emergency departments always triage their patients so that the most critical cases receive treatment first. But if individuals always believe that they will be seen quickly in an emergency department, isn’t that a serious disconnect in these patients’ understanding of what medical emergency is critical and what is not?

Patients Arriving By Ambulance Aren’t Guaranteed a Shorter Wait Time

In their article, the Peterborough County City paramedics explained that just because a patient arrives in an ambulance, that does not mean that the patient has a shorter wait time in the emergency department. They emphasized that all patients need to be evaluated and treated in order of medical priority – not by how long they were waiting to be seen by healthcare providers – because of the life-and-death nature of all emergency departments.

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Most emergency departments adhere to this standard protocol. Even though this protocol makes sense to most medical professionals, it is a surprisingly difficult concept for some patients to understand. In practice, telling patients in pain that they need to wait to see a doctor because there are more “true emergencies” ahead of them is an unpopular practice.

The Semantics of True Emergencies

So why is there a disconnect between the general public and the emergency department? Can it be because patients just don’t understand triage?

Most likely an inability to understand triage is part of the problem, but perhaps there is a semantic connotation that creates a lot of confusion for the public. By nature, the word “emergency” implies “urgency,” so people expect assistance with their medical emergencies immediately.

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Hospitals Can Be Proactive in Helping Patients Better Understand Emergencies

Hospitals are businesses, so asking them to come up with new ways of managing urgent patient needs is certainly essential. But if patients think they’re being dismissed in regard to their urgent but non-critical medical needs, that will hurt their business as well.

It is crucial, however, for hospitals to help patients better understand medical emergencies and wait times. Some hospitals have posted signs with wait times outside of their emergency departments to provide transparency to prospective patients. Other healthcare providers try to explain the triage system to ER patients waiting to be seen.

Ideally, the definition of “urgent medical care” needs to be addressed. If we can work to close the gaps in patients’ understanding of “true emergencies,” we may be able to tighten the policies surrounding emergency medical services.

Allison G.S. Knox

Allison G. S. Knox teaches in the fire science and emergency management departments at the University. Focusing on emergency management and emergency medical services policy, she often writes and advocates about these issues. Allison works as an Intermittent Emergency Management Specialist in the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response. She also serves as the At-Large Director of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, Chancellor of the Southeast Region on the Board of Trustees with Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Sciences, chair of Pi Gamma Mu’s Leadership Development Program and Assistant Editor for the International Journal of Paramedicine. Prior to teaching, Allison worked for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. and in a Level One trauma center emergency department. She is an emergency medical technician and holds five master’s degrees.

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