In case of emergency – or not

By Michael Young, M.D., senior medical director, Providence Medical Group Immediate Care and Providence RN

The time to plan a fire escape route is not when you're hanging out the window of a smoke-filled house; it's when everything is fine, your mind is calm, and you can plan a rational strategy.

The same is true of planning for medical emergencies – and non-emergency health problems, as well. In the throes of a crisis, it's often difficult to think clearly and make good decisions. The best time to plan what to do, just in case, is now. Having a plan in place is not only comforting and reassuring – it also may save you some time and trouble, spare you some unnecessary expenses, and keep your family safer.

Take a moment to review these guidelines with your family so you'll be prepared for action if a medical problem arises.

In case of emergency

In a medical emergency, call 911 or get to a hospital emergency department immediately. What's a medical emergency? If it's serious enough to scare you, it's probably an emergency. Heart attack or stroke symptoms, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, severe or uncontrolled bleeding – these all qualify.

For more information, read: Do I Need to go to the Emergency Room?

Not an emergency? Call your primary care provider

Your primary care provider is the best person to call when you experience a non-emergency health problem. This is the health care provider who is most familiar with you and who knows your health history. Same-day appointments are now available in most Providence primary care offices. If your provider can't see you the same day, but feels that you need to be seen right away, you may be referred to another person in the same office, or to an immediate care clinic nearby. If your doctor's office feels that it's safe to wait, you'll be given the earliest available appointment and some instructions regarding what you can do in the mean time.

For after-hours health concerns that need attention right away

Most medical problems are not emergencies, but many still require prompt attention. If your doctor's office is closed, where would you go? While your first instinct may be to head for a hospital's emergency room, it's probably not the best choice for less-serious injuries and illnesses. An immediate care clinic may be able to help you more quickly and less expensively than an ER, where you'd have to wait for the most seriously ill people to be seen first.

Immediate care clinics offer extended evening and weekend hours to treat medical problems that are not life threatening, but can't wait for the next day. The immediate care experts can address your immediate concerns until your doctor can follow up with you. If your situation does turn out to require emergency attention, the staff of the immediate care clinic will know what to do and will help you get to the right place safely.

While you are in planning mode, find out where your closest Providence Immediate Care Clinic is located. Print out the map, the phone number and the hours of operation, and store this information where everyone in your family knows where to find it.

Not sure what to do? A nurse advice line can help

Many health plans now offer 24-hour nurse advice lines. These are great resources when you're not sure what to do. A quick call connects you with an experienced nurse who is an expert at navigating the complex health care system. With a few pointed questions, the nurse can direct you to the right level of care for your health issue, and can provide other helpful information, as well. The nurses at Providence RN (Providence Health Plan's nurse advice line), for example, can schedule a doctor's appointment for you while you are on the line. If they feel that you need care right away, they can tell you how to get to the closest immediate care clinic, and even how long the wait will be.

The phone number for the nurse advice line is usually located right on your insurance card. Write it down and keep it with the rest of your emergency numbers, and make sure that everyone in the family knows where it is.

Invest a few minutes today to plan what you would do in a potential medical crisis. It really does take just a few minutes, and it may save you much more than that in the long run.