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When to Call 911, Your Doctor, or the Hospital

When a medical emergency occurs, it's not always easy to think clearly. But a crisis means that you need to act quickly. Learning about your choices in care ahead of time will help you when an emergency does happen.

You should know what's an emergency if you are in a consumer-directed health plan, such as a medical savings account. These plans place more responsibility for health care decisions on your shoulders.

When you need immediate medical help, you have three choices. You can call the 911 emergency number. You can go to a hospital emergency room. Or, you can call your doctor for advice. Here's a look at which choice is best.

When to call 911

The 911 emergency number -- or your community's local emergency number -- is for true emergencies. An emergency threatens a person's life, limbs, or sense organs. Examples are heart attacks, strokes, breathing problems, broken bones, head and neck injuries, cuts with severe bleeding, and eye injuries.

You can also call 911 when you are not physically able to drive the person to the hospital, and the person has a condition that is growing worse.

When you call 911, an ambulance is sent with people trained in life support. The patient is taken to a hospital for emergency care. One reason to avoid using 911 if it's not absolutely necessary is the cost. The patient or his or her insurance company will be billed for the ambulance, the hospital, and the doctor's services. The best reason to use 911 only in a serious emergency is so that the emergency services personnel are free to help a person having a life-threatening emergency.

When to go to a hospital

Doctors who specialize in emergency medicine see just about everything, from real emergencies to people who come in for minor problems because they have nowhere else to go. But hospital emergency treatment is expensive because of its 24-hour availability and high overhead costs.

So, when is it appropriate to go to a hospital? If you feel a person needs immediate attention and a primary care doctor isn't available, then emergency care may be the best choice. Remember that emergency care is not first come, first served. Patients in the emergency room are treated according to the severity of their condition. This sorting of patients is called triage.

When to call your doctor

If you think a person needs emergency treatment at a hospital, it's sometimes helpful to first call your doctor for advice. Do this only if you have the time and the doctor is immediately available. If not, then you should call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. Your doctor can advise you as to whether an emergency situation actually exists.

If there is time to spare, then you should see your doctor first. Remember, a doctor's visit won't be as expensive as a hospital's emergency treatment. And it won't tie up vital emergency medical services. The doctor may also decide that the condition can be treated in his or her office or at home. This saves your time and the hospital’s time, and reduces overall health costs. 

Some other options

Urgent care centers. These doctor-staffed, walk-in medical facilities offer an alternative when there isn't an emergency and you don't have access to your personal doctor. They are generally more expensive than seeing your own physician but less expensive than an emergency room visit. The doctors are usually well qualified, and the center has immediate access to simple laboratory procedures.

Poison control centers. These centers are staffed by people well trained to handle telephone calls dealing with poisoning emergencies. Keep the number by your phone, especially if you have children at home.