Decoding the Emergency Department: How to avoid the frustration of Wait Times!

As a Medical Doctor who has lived in Canada for 20 years, I completely understand how overwhelming the healthcare system can be. It’s hard enough trying to navigate it for yourself or another adult. BUT once you throw a child in the mix, an already confusing system can become even more daunting!

In December 2018, our daughter was a little over 1 year old and we had decided to visit my cousin who had just had a baby in Chicago. The day after we arrived, our sweet girl developed a fever of almost 40 Celcius (104 F) and her personality went from jovial and bubbly, to completely flat.

To say I was worried is an understatement. I was now in the shoes of the parents who I saw in the ER with their babies “burning hot”, as they would often put it.

For me, there was the very real dilemma between keeping her warm because of the cold she had been battling, versus bathing her with tepid water because of the fever.

Even bigger, was the dilemma between taking her to the ER (the clinics were closed due to the holidays), versus keeping her at home, treating the fever with over the counter medication and waiting it out.

Putting my Doctor Hat on, I deduced that this was CLEARLY a viral infection and taking her to the ER would mean spending hours in the waiting room, only to be sent home with instructions on “fluids, Tylenol +/- Ibuprofen and rest”. Or worse still, having her undergo a bunch of unnecessary tests, with a hefty bill to boot.

But then putting the Mommy Hat on… Oh boy! This was her first fever ever, and I had never seen her this dull, eyes glazed over and wanting to be held so much. I would have done anything to help her feel better in that instant. The thought of giving her antibiotics – yes, ANTIBIOTICS for a VIRAL infection – actually crossed my mind! Sacrilege, I know! Lol.

Ultimately, the Doctor Hat won and we waited it out. My aunty – an experienced nurse -served as a voice of reason, as well as the “tepid” bath administrator. She didn’t get a smile from our daughter for a while!

A couple of days later Baby Girl was completely back to her usual self. Thank God!

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This time of year, hundreds of people show up with their kids to any given Emergency Room and they don’t have a “Doctor Hat” to help them decide whether to wait in line, see their own Family Doctor/Pediatrician, go to a Walk-In clinic or even an Urgent Care Center.

The University of Michigan put out a great list to help make the decision a little easier. Click here to check it out.

Basically the ER is there to provide EMERGENCY care and prevent the IMMINENT loss of life or limb.

Unfortunately the ER is not a first come-first serve environment like a Walk-In clinic. Although no appointment is necessary, there is a Triage system in place such that those with more life and limb threatening conditions are seen first. That can mean really, really long waits for everyone else. Plus unnecessary exposure to germs… especially during these winter months when viruses are running amok!

I know it’s hard… You’ve read my experience, even as an ER doc myself! But if you can, avoid bringing your little kiddos to the ER by following the guidelines in the link above.

This goes without saying, but I still feel it needs to be said: If your child’s symptoms fit the description of an Emergency, then absolutely do take them in! Don’t let wait times deter you.

Have you had a situation where you weren’t sure whether to take your child, or yourself in to the ER? What would have helped you to make that tough decision?



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