Handling medical emergencies
In an emergency, it's often the first few moments that count the most. Prepare yourself to do the right thing, fast.
Medical emergencies usually can't be predicted.
That's why it's so important to educate yourself—and prepare to respond—before an emergency happens.
The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) offers the following advice on managing emergencies:
One way to avoid medical emergencies is to take good care of yourself. Get regular health exams and checkups, and talk to your doctor about your risk factors for disease or injury—and follow his or her advice on reducing your risks.
You should also check your home regularly for safety hazards from fire, falls, poisoning and other home accidents. Visit our Safety topic center to find out more about home safety.
There are several steps you can take to help make sure you're prepared for an emergency.
One important thing to do is to keep a list of emergency numbers next to your phone. According to ACEP, this list should include police and fire departments, poison control, your local hospital, ambulance service and your family doctor.
You should also make a list of allergies and medicines for each member of your family. Carry it with you, since you may not be able to speak for yourself in an emergency.
In addition to these lists, you'll want to keep a well-stocked first aid kit at home, at work and in your car. Finally, take a basic first aid class, including CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).
An emergency is any situation where immediate medical attention is needed to prevent death or serious harm, according to ACEP.
They also list these specific warning signs:
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath.
- Bleeding that won't stop.
- Chest pain that lasts two minutes or more.
- Sudden dizziness, weakness or change in vision.
- Unusual behavior or a state of confusion or stupor.
- Sudden, severe pain anywhere in the body.
- Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea.
- Coughing up or vomiting blood.
Never perform a medical procedure if you aren't sure how to do it, says ACEP. If you know first aid and CPR, be willing to provide either one until emergency help arrives. ACEP offers these additional guidelines:
- Don't move someone who's been in a car accident, had a serious fall or was found unconscious, unless the person is in immediate danger of further injury.
- Don't give the injured person anything to eat or drink.
- Keep the person covered.
- If the person is bleeding, apply direct pressure on the wound with a clean cloth or sterile bandage. If possible, elevate the injury above the level of the heart.
Call an ambulance instead of driving someone to the emergency department if:
- The condition threatens life or limb.
- The condition could become life-threatening on the way to the hospital.
- Traffic or distance could cause a delay in getting to the hospital.
- Moving the person requires the skills or equipment of emergency responders.
If you're not sure about whether to call an ambulance, it's best to err on the side of caution, says ACEP.
When you call 911 or your local emergency number, try to stay calm and speak slowly. Tell the dispatcher what happened, explain the emergency, and give the dispatcher your name, the number of the phone you're using and the address of the emergency.
You may be asked how many people are hurt; whether the injured person is conscious or can breathe, talk or move; if there's a fire; or if anyone is trapped.
Listen to the instructions the dispatcher gives you and don't hang up until he or she tells you to.
A word about insurance
If you have insurance coverage for emergency medical care, read your policy and learn what's covered ahead of time. Find out if you have a co-payment or deductible, how your insurance company defines an emergency, and whether your care would be covered at any hospital. It's best to look into these things before an emergency and not when you're in the middle of one.