As emergency rooms deal with rising COVID-19 cases, healthcare officials urge people with minor injuries or illnesses to go elsewhere.
“The ER is normally the best place to go when you have a life- or limb-threatening condition,” explained Dr. Curtis Copeland, the Baylor Scott & White Health Division director of Primary Care for the Hill Country Region. “The problem is we’re seeing a lot of people using the ER when it would be better to go to urgent care or primary care.”
Non-emergency patients can hinder treatment of true emergencies in the ER, Copeland cautioned.
“And, with the current COVID situation, especially with the delta variant, which is the most dangerous variant we’ve seen so far, we really need our (emergency room) physicians and nurses to be able to focus on where they’re most needed,” he said. “The latest COVID spike is putting enormous pressure on our hospitals.”
Along with COVID-19 cases, ER staff treat traumatic injuries, heart attacks and strokes, and other serious illnesses.
The use of emergency rooms for non-emergency care isn’t new. Hospitals have dealt with the issue for years. In a 2021 report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outlined the problem of overuse of hospital emergency departments from 2009 to 2018.
The study found that about 80 percent of emergency room visits in that span were “treated and released” with a small percentage referred to another facility for mental health care.
And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, only about 12.4 percent of ER visits in 2018 led to hospital admission.
Reasons people choose to go to the ER for non-emergencies vary, but one is that they don’t know their options.
Copeland said people can often receive treatment of non-emergency issues at primary care or urgent care facilities.
“With primary care, they can handle normal medical problems, and most have same-day appointments available,” Copeland said. “This would be a place for sprains, minor lacerations, minor colds, and things.”
Copeland said urgent care centers provide a higher level of care, sometimes on par with emergency rooms.
Health issues that can be treated by a primary or urgent care facility include allergies, minor animal bites, constipation, earaches, influenza, minor burns, a sore throat, pink eye, and diarrhea.
Copeland said people should seek emergency care for things such as — but not limited to — chest pains or squeezing of the chest, severe abdominal pain, vomiting blood, difficulty breathing, and anything signaling a possible stroke.
Copeland said he understands people want immediate answers when they’re not feeling well, but the ER is not the best place for non-emergencies.
“When someone is sick, they want to know right now what’s wrong and have it taken care of, and we sympathize with them,” he said. “But when someone goes into the (emergency room) who could be cared for through their primary care or an urgent care, that’s one more delay for physicians and nurses to see a life-threatening case.
“What’s important is that ER doctors and staff can be focused on the sickest of the sick,” he added.
If, however, you believe that you or someone else is experiencing a medical emergency, call 9-1-1.