By Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA
About Emergencies: What is a medical emergency and when to call 9-1-1
Debate brews over whether emergency departments are busier since the Affordable Healthcare Act expanded insurance coverage the beginning of this year.
While the debate continues, it is important for you to understand what a medical emergency is and when to call 9-1-1.
The information in this post, What is a Medical Emergency? is from the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) – Emergency Care For You – and it is published with permission granted by ACEP.
What is a medical emergency?
A medical emergency is an event that you reasonably believe threatens your or someone else’s life or limb in such a manner that immediate medical care is needed to prevent death or serious impairment of health. A medical emergency includes severe pain, bad injury, a serious illness, or a medical condition that is quickly getting much worse.
- To help you decide if you should call 9-1-1 answer these questions (as best you can):
- Is the condition life or limb threatening?
- Could the condition worsen quickly on the way to the hospital?
- If you move the victim, will it cause further injury?
- Does the person need skills or equipment that paramedics or EMT’s carry right away?
- Would distance or traffic cause a delay in getting the person to the hospital?
If the answer is yes to any of these….call 9-1-1.
What if I’m not sure?
If you’re not sure about the answer to the above questions, call 9-1-1 and the trained dispatcher will help advise you. It is better to be safe and let the 9-1-1 call taker determine if you need emergent assistance. Always err on the side of caution. When in doubt, call.
If you are experiencing any of the following, call 9-1-1 immediately:
- Severe difficulty breathing, especially that does not improve with rest.
- Chest Pain
- A fast heartbeat (more than 120-150) at rest especially if associated with shortness of breath or feeling faint
- You witness someone faint/pass out or someone is unresponsive (comatose)
- Difficulty speaking, numbness, or weakness of any part of the body
- Sudden dizziness, weakness or mental changes (confusion, very odd behavior, difficulty walking)
- Sudden blindness or vision changes
- Heavy bleeding from your mouth, nose, vagina or bottom
- Bleeding from any wound that won’t stop with direct pressure
- Broken bones visible through an open wound, or a broken leg
- Severe Burns
- Allergic reaction, especially if there is any difficulty breathing
- Extremely hot or cold
- Poisoning or drug overdose
- New severe headache
- Sudden intense severe pain
- Someone is threatening to hurt or kill themselves or someone else
When not to call 9-1-1?
- Routine visits to medical offices, clinics, hospitals
- Flu-like symptoms or common colds
- Chronic (ongoing) aches or pains
- Minor cuts that stop bleeding with pressure
- Broken fingers or toes (unless partially/fully amputated)
At your discretion, for these issues proceed to your nearest clinic or emergency department, but you most likely don’t need 9-1-1.
Don’t call 9-1-1 if:
- Some crime (burglary, damage) was committed yesterday
- Your cat is stuck in a tree
- You need general information (such as phone numbers, directions, road or weather conditions)
Calls of this nature may delay response to true emergencies and delay critical time-sensitive, life-saving assistance.
Who will answer my call? What information will they want?
9-1-1 calls are answered by trained dispatchers who will ask you questions to determine what kind of help you need. As soon as you call, a response is in action but you must stay on the line to answer more questions until the dispatcher tells you to hang up.
You may be asked:
- What happened?
- Where are you? (Be specific. This is especially important if you are using a cell phone as the dispatcher may not be able to track your exact location like is possible when you use a land-line)
- What is your name?
- What is your phone number?
I’ve called 9-1-1, what should I do while I wait?
- Answer all the 9-1-1 call taker’s questions.
- Apply direct pressure to a bleeding wound with whatever cloth/bandages you have
- If it is at night, turn on the lights in your home, to make it easier for the ambulance to find you
- If you’re on a cell phone, make sure to give the call-taker EXACT information on your location
- If you or the other person has Advanced Directives, power of attorney or other legal documents about their wishes for care from the paramedics or hospital, please have these ready when help arrives.
What if I call 9-1-1 by mistake?
If you call by mistake, DO NOT HANG UP, just stay on the line and tell the dispatcher that everything is OK. If you hang up, they may send a police officer or fire truck to your location to investigate if there is a problem.
For further information, please visit here.
Remember to always be proactive and in charge of your health. Be an empowered health care consumer. Always ask questions and speak up and remember to stay calm.
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The content on this website and related broadcasts is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for any medical condition. Promptly seek professional medical care if you have any concern about your health. Always consult your physician before making any changes to your medical regimen.