The Emergency Room During Times of a Pandemic

In the Fall of 2019, right before flu season really hit, my colleague Ryan Mackman published a great blog titled, “How ER Over-Utilizations Hurts Healthcare.” Now, as we’re in the middle of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, I wanted to take a few minutes to reiterate the importance of appropriate use of the Emergency Room.

The University of Maryland School of Medicine discovered that between 1996 and 2010 the use of the ER for non-emergencies increased about 44%, and nearly half of Americans who need medical attention were choosing the ER as their place of service. Overcrowding the emergency room during a pandemic can create a series of issues, and it’s even more important to utilize the right care setting to ensure you get the care you need when you need it:

  1. You go to the ER because you’re nauseous or your nose is running or… you experience other non-life-threatening symptoms. You panic because you think you may have COVID-19! Hospitals are currently experiencing a significant shortage of tests, which means that it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever actually be tested. However, you are significantly more likely to contract COVID-19, even if you didn’t previously have it when you visit the ER. This is because you are putting yourself at risk!
  2. The ER should be reserved for life-threatening conditions- or, as the name suggests, emergencies. If everyone rushes out to the ER during a pandemic, the patients that need to be seen for life-threatening conditions (like inability to breathe due to COVID-19 or even the common heart attack victim), won’t be taken care of in a timely manner. Consider staying away to allow valuable healthcare resources to be directed towards saving lives.
  3. Money is tight for everyone right now because pandemics cause the economy to falter when business is forced to stop. Whether you experienced a furlough, a pay cut, or simply lost a lot of money in the stock market, the emergency room is always the most expensive place to get care. An emergency room visit will cost 3, 4, or sometimes even as much as 5 times more than visiting your primary care provider, or urgent care center, for the same treatment (and as of writing this, most of them still don’t have COVID-19 tests either).

As primary care offices and urgent care centers are closing, where do you go for help?

Telehealth: This is the time to really focus on the value telehealth brings to the healthcare community. There are several telehealth options available to you. First, check with your primary care provider whether they are providing telehealth visits. If they are, then for any non-life-threatening conditions, call your primary care provider! They may be able to complete a virtual office visit from the comfort of your own home! Many specialists are also providing telehealth services, with easy, online scheduling options. For example, Chesapeake Urology is providing comprehensive telehealth visits throughout Maryland, and new and existing patients can sign up for an appointment online. If this isn’t an option, check with your insurance plan. Many insurance companies are also offering telehealth visits. Telehealth visits can significantly reduce your exposure to COVID-19, and can also get you the effective care you need.

Urgent Care: If you feel that your condition needs to be evaluated, and the treatment can’t be provided over the phone, visit an urgent care center in your area. Keep in mind, though, that if you decide to visit an urgent care center, remember to wear a mask! Most surgical masks are designed to prevent you from spreading what you have to others. Only N95 masks (which are in short supply) can stop others from spreading something to you.

What should you do before you get sick?

  1. Identify your telehealth options now, and put them on your refrigerator (or another easily-accessible place).
  2. Identify multiple urgent care centers near your house. Post those in an easy-to-reach place too, along with their hours.

Most importantly, practice social distancing and wash your hands! I hope everyone stays healthy during this pandemic. Hopefully, this blog, and a little preparation, will help ease some of the stress.

Maria Nikol

About the Author


Maria Nikol

Maria Nikol is a senior business consultant with 10 years of experience in healthcare operations and healthcare strategy. Her specialization includes process improvement and the application of emerging models of healthcare delivery such as Patient-Centered Medical Homes and Accountable Care Organizations. She holds a Master of Jurisprudence in Health Law from Widener University and a Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Marketing and Management from the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

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