Newswise — Chances are that you or family member will sometime need the care provided by a hospital emergency room (ER). Knowing who you will likely encounter during an ER visit may help you get the best care at a time when you may be in pain or discomfort and feeling anxious and afraid.

While You Wait

Registration clerk: This often non-medical staff member will take your name, date of birth and other personal details, and collect your insurance provider information.

Triage nurse: ER care is not first-come, first-served; if you arrive in an ambulance, unconscious or unresponsive, or if you may have had a heart attack or stroke, triage (or priority) puts you at the top of the list. A triage nurse typically records blood pressure, temperature, oxygen levels and assesses your pain levels to determine how urgent your needs are.

The Treatment Team

Once you’re moved to the treatment area, your care shifts to the primary emergency department nurse. This type of registered nurse has the experience to manage and assist with a variety of emergency situations, from broken bones to cardiac arrest.

Most ER patients see an attending physician, or faculty physician in charge of ER care. Attending physicians have completed medical school and residency and are MDs, or medical doctors, and DOs, or doctors of osteopathic medicine.

Specialist physicians with more training in orthopedics, cardiology, surgery, neurology and other medical specialties also consult with attending physicians and treat patients in the ER.

ERs also employ physician assistants (PAs), persons qualified to practice medicine under the direction of a physician, and nurse practitioners (NPs), nurses with advanced training and master's degrees, to treat patients. Other support staff includes nursing assistants, medical assistants or patient care technicians.

Today’s ERs often include technicians to perform X-rays, CT scans and other tests on patients. These members of the ER or hospital staff perform one or more types of medical testing, but they cannot answer your questions about test results or patient care.

Getting the Best Care

So, with all of these people in an ER, patients and family members may wonder: Who can answer my questions?

The primary nurse, who is assigned to several patient units or “rooms,” is usually the most accessible staff member to ER patients and can discuss many aspects of your treatment plan, as well as help you learn about your condition or symptoms. Common questions to ask include: What is your role in my care? Who else will examine me? What will be happening next? How long do you think it might be before I see a doctor? When will my pain be reduced?

Most visits end with a patient being discharged and handed an explicit written set of instructions for managing their care at home. But many patients aren’t aware that it’s often up to them to let their own primary care physicians know that they were treated in the ER and why. If you ever land in the ER, make sure to pass that information on to your regular doctor and health care team.

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Health Behavior News Service (Volume 4, Issue 1, January 2011)