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When to go to the emergency department

“There are lots of times when people feel that they need to see a doctor right away,” says Jeffrey Oyler, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. “However, there may be a better option for them than the emergency department.” Emergency departments often have longer waits than other options such as urgent care centers and they can be the most expensive point of care.

Insurance co-pays are usually more expensive at the emergency department compared to co-pays at a physician’s office or urgent care center. There are three ways you can quickly see a physician if you are injured or ill, depending on how serious your condition is, he explains.

1. Primary Care Physician

Dr. Oyler recommends that everyone establish a relationship with a primary care physician at an office location convenient to them. If you have an illness or injury that is not life-threatening and you can wait until regular office hours, seeing a primary care doctor is likely your best option.

2. Urgent Care

Immediate care facilities can treat non-life-threatening acute conditions that occur outside a primary care physician’s office hours, such as in the evenings or on the weekend. “Urgent care offers extended hours and caters more to minor emergencies – sprains, strains or lacerations,” says Dr. Oyler.

3. Emergency Department

“We often say that emergency departments are there for people [who] are concerned for life or limb,” Dr. Oyler explains. “We’re open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” he says. “We cater to the more high-end emergencies.”

Emergency departments are staffed 24/7 with a team that is equipped to handle serious, life-threatening emergencies, such as strokes, acute chest pain, acute abdominal pain and serious accidents. “We are staffing it in anticipation of events that are going to occur, whether it’s an ambulance arrival, automobile accident, chest pain or abdominal pain,” he says. “We are geared up and waiting to assist people who have these emergencies.”

How the ED handles non-emergencies

If you visit the emergency department with a non-life-threatening issue, you may need to plan for a longer wait time. “If there are non-acute issues, non-life-threatening things that have been lingering, but now you just want to be seen to get to the bottom of it, there are other resources that are probably better utilized than the emergency department,” says Dr. Oyler.

When a patient arrives at the ED, the emergency team categorizes him or her according to the Emergency Severity Index. This index helps staff determine which patients need immediate care, based on their vital signs, and helps set a standard so that the sickest patients are seen first. “The less severe cases are seen as fast as we can get to them, but all of that leads to delays,” says Dr. Oyler.

“It’s not the care that we desire to give which is the reason we prefer that true emergencies come in the emergency department so we can give the best care.”

The bottom line? “Be smart about the decisions you make,” says Dr. Oyler. “We want you to establish a [relationship with a] primary care physician. If you have immediate needs that can’t wait until you can [see] your regular doctor, immediate or urgent care centers are a great choice. If you feel you have a life-threatening emergency that can’t wait, the emergency department is open 24 hours a day to be there for you.” For more information on emergency services at Piedmont’s five campuses, visit:

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