In 2007, roughly 117 million Americans went to the emergency room [source: Niska, Bhuija and Xu]. What's sending them there? The top 10 reasons why we visit the ER may surprise you. Accidents and critical injuries aren't the main drivers. Instead we seek help for everything from abdominal and chest pain to fever, cough and sore throat [source: McCaig and Burt].
But the way emergency departments work is not first come, first serve. While your back pain may feel like a critical injury to you, the emergency team may have a different set of priorities. How quickly you are seen depends on how severe your condition is.
Patient priority is determined by a triage staff once the patient arrives at the ER. Symptoms are assessed and the triage staff takes a medical history. Those with the most critical injuries or symptoms, such as patients with multiple traumas or those unconscious or not breathing, are first priority. These patients are seen immediately.
Patients with urgent symptoms that could deteriorate quickly into an emergency are typically seen in 15 minutes to one hour, while patients with semi-urgent symptoms are generally seen by a physician in one to two hours. Non-urgent patients are given the lowest priority, and could wait as long as two hours or more in a crowded ER [source: McCaig and Burt].
"High-acuity patients are taken straight to the ER," explains Dr. Tarlan Hedayati, a physician in the department of emergency medicine at John H. Stroger Hospital of Cook County in Chicago. "Others will wait in the waiting room where they will be reassessed during that time. It's a very dynamic process, and patients might increase or decrease in priority while they wait."
Additionally, the entire patient, not just the immediate complaint, is taken into account during the triage process. Other conditions, such as cancer or HIV, are considered in the assessment, as well as how long the patient's symptoms have been going on. For example, explains Hedayati, a patient who has experienced stomach pain for six months may be less of a priority than a patient who has complained of severe stomach pain for a few days.
So what types of symptoms or injuries are at the top of the emergency department's priorities? Let's look at the reasons why people visit the emergency room and prioritize them through the eyes of the triage staff, starting with the least urgent and working our way to the most critical.