Here are the missteps commonly made during the first 24 hours of a health crisis…

There are no two ways about it—medical emergencies fill us with fright, confusion and sometimes panic. While you may think that you can’t prepare for an unexpected health crisis, the truth is that you can—and should.

Whether you’re dealing with a stroke, heart attack or even a relatively minor injury such as a broken ankle, the consequences of not being prepared can be quite serious. In the most extreme cases, it can result in a preventable medical error, which studies show is a leading cause of death in the US.

Below are four common mistakes that patients make during the first 24 hours—and simple steps you can take to avoid them…

MISTAKE #1: Not calling 911. In the first moments of a health crisis, it’s hard to know what to do. Simply render aid? Call 911? Or load the patient in the car and take him/her to the hospital yourself?

What to consider…

What’s the nature of the problem? If it’s a minor injury to a limb (arm or leg) or an extremity (hand or foot), it’s generally less urgent than an injury to the head or torso, where vital organs are located. (Note: If bleeding from a limb or extremity won’t stop even when pressure is applied or there is a very long or deep cut, the situation may be serious and warrants a 911 call.)

If there’s no visible injury but the person is experiencing troubling symptoms, be sure to pay close attention. Does he have unexplained shortness of breath? Is he clammy and cold or faint and dizzy? (All are potential heart attack signs.) Is the pain getting worse? Does he appear to be having an acute allergic reaction or asthma attack? Any of these scenarios could become life-threatening and should prompt an immediate call to 911.

If the patient is stable, talking coherently and none of the above symptoms are present, it’s helpful to call the patient’s primary care physician and ask if the situation can be handled in an office visit. If you can’t reach the doctor or you have any doubts, call 911.

What’s the age and health status of the patient? If you’re dealing with someone who’s in his 70s or older and/or has a chronic condition such as diabetes, heart disease or cancer, it’s best to err on the side of caution and call 911 if there is any question whether the person requires emergency treatment.

MISTAKE #2: Heading to the wrong hospital. When a patient realizes that he is at a hospital that simply doesn’t have the expertise and resources to properly render care, it can require dozens of phone calls over days and pushback from the insurance company to get a transfer to another hospital. Instead, get to the right hospital the first time. Here’s how…

Before there’s ever an emergency, check to see if you have a designated “trauma center” in your area. An emergency room is considered a trauma center when it has the manpower and technology to handle the worst physical injuries—such as those from car crashes, high falls, etc. There are five different levels of trauma centers—a Level I center has the most resources, while a Level V center would provide basic trauma care. To find out if you have a trauma center near you, go to

If your condition is not life-threatening, you can ask the ambulance driver to take you to your preferred hospital. If he resists, request that the driver contact his supervisor for permission. However, if it’s a true emergency, such as a heart attack, you should be taken to the closest ER available.

Important: When you reach an emergency department (or even while in transit, if possible), call your doctor. This will enable the medical staff to more accurately place your diagnosis in the context of your medical history. Note: If you have the choice of going to a trauma center (not all locations will have one) or the hospital where your doctor has privileges (meaning he has been cleared to use the hospital’s facilities), you need to consider the specific situation. For example, if it’s a chronic problem that might require a lengthy stay, having your primary care physician present becomes more important. If you’ve been in a car accident, a trauma center is likely better.

MISTAKE #3: Not communicating clearly. Once you’re at the emergency room, you (or your loved one) will need to convey a lot of information fast. And that might not be so easy. What helps…

Don’t assume that electronic medical records will be in place. In this age of electronic medical records, that advice to carry an up-to-date medical information card in your wallet is no longer valid, right? Oh yes, it is! The electronic medical record systems of many hospitals and doctors’ offices are not compatible at this point, so it’s still wise to have that card with you at all times. Be sure to include any allergies, chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes, medications (and dosages) and phone numbers for emergency contacts.

Make sure you are heard. Studies show that the average ER patient gets interrupted after 12 seconds of explaining his symptoms. For the best care, it’s crucial to give the medical staff your full range of symptoms and medical history, so be clear and detailed. Also, be assertive if you are interrupted and let your needs be known.

MISTAKE #4: Giving up your power. When illness strikes you or a family member, it’s easy to believe that if you simply obey the doctors and nurses, all will be well. Not so. The patient is ultimately in charge of his own health destiny. What helps…

Find out who is treating you. If you’re at a teaching hospital, it can be difficult to tell whether it’s an attending physician, a resident or an intern who might be working in the emergency room. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask, “Could you tell me what your title is?” If your health issue is complex, politely request to be examined by the attending physician. This way, you’ll be sure to have a doctor who has completed his training (and is actually supervising the others) caring for you.

Don’t forget your records. By federal law, all your medical records belong to you. Before you’re discharged after an ER visit, ask for copies of all of your medical records in case you encounter complications down the road and the doctors treating you need to know your medical history. The cost for these copies varies by state.

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