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After the ER: What next?

You’ve read enough about heart-attack warning signs and bagel-cutting accidents to know when you should head to the emergency room (ER). But will you know how to care for yourself when it’s time to go home? Recent research has found that 78 percent of patients discharged from the ER don’t fully understand the instructions that they’re given by doctors. That can lead to complications. If you find yourself in the ER, consider these points:

If you’ve had a heart attack … You’ll be admitted to the hospital, not sent home. When you eventually do leave the hospital, be sure to ask the doctor how to take any prescribed medication and what dangerous symptoms to watch for that could require another visit to the ER.

If you’ve been injured … Many people have their wounds sealed with topical skin adhesive, but others receive stitches or staples. Some stitches dissolve and don’t warrant another doctor visit, but others need to be removed by a physician, so you should understand whether—and when—it’s necessary to make a follow-up appointment, especially if the stitches are in an area that you can’t see. Find out whether you can get the wound wet; how to clean it and change your bandages, if need be; and how it will look and feel if it gets infected (redness and a foul odor are likely signs).

Don’t forget to follow up

If the doctor gives you written instructions about taking medication or asks you to be on the lookout for symptoms that could signal infection or a relapse, make sure you understand everything before leaving. Find out what pain medication to use, and whether you’ll need a prescription. Ask whether to return to the ER or to your healthcare provider if your health worsens; the doctor’s response will depend on your condition and the time of your visit. Many ER doctors recommend an appointment with your provider a week or two after being discharged, so ask whether this will be necessary. You probably won’t need to phone your health insurance company after your ER visit, although some companies require a phone call beforehand.