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What does an Emergency Room Doctor do?

By Rhonda Rivera
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An emergency room (ER) doctor treats patients that cannot go to a primary physician. These patients are usually in the emergency room because they could not get an appointment with a regular doctor soon enough due to the severity of a wound, the time of day, or other doctors' unavailability. Emergency room doctors must be prepared to diagnose and form treatment plans for a wide variety of illnesses and wounds, and work with limited information regarding the patient’s medical history. For example, one patient might simply have the flu and need fluids and a decongestant, while another patient might be near-death due to a work place accident. An emergency room doctor goes from exam room to exam room, diagnosing patients in order of severity.

Emergency rooms are normally open 24 hours a day, seven days per week. When a person cannot go to his or her primary physician and needs care quickly, he or she can visit an emergency room. The receptionists and nurses help patients check in and take their vitals to ensure no one is in immediate danger. These patients see an emergency room doctor in order of severity, so people with minor problems will likely wait much longer than someone with immediately life-threatening symptoms. Once taken to an exam room, a nurse looks the patient over and collects information on his or her symptoms and pain levels to relay to the ER doctor.

When the emergency room doctor moves to examine a new patient, he or she is already up-to-date on what is wrong thanks to a nurse. The doctor normally glances over the patient to confirm the information the nurse collected, then makes a diagnosis. This diagnosis might need to be confirmed with tests, like an electrocardiograph (EKG), urine culture, or blood test. In this case, the doctor orders a nurse to have the appropriate staff member perform the test, and then leaves to visit another patient while the test is underway. Once the results are back, the emergency room doctor studies them to confirm the diagnosis, then visits the patient once more to lay out a treatment plan.

Due to the nature of an emergency room, some patients arrive but never leave. ER doctors must sometimes deal with death on a daily basis. This fact coupled with long hours makes depression a common occurrence for emergency room doctors. Many doctors find the job both rewarding and exciting, however.

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Discussion Comments

By cddallas — On Mar 15, 2014

I give sole credit to an ER doctor years ago for waking me up to the seriousness of my health condition: namely, no spleen and as a result a compromised immune system, and for shaming me a little into learning as much as I could to help myself.

Before I left, as busy as he was that night, he sent the nurse back in to pointedly tell me that when I got home to look up my health condition on the Internet -- to do some serious research. That seemingly small thing turned out to be huge -- I had so much to learn and can truthfully say that that would have never occurred to me on my own!

I remember he apologized for not knowing how to help me (I had been hospitalized for cellulitis and returned to the emergency room when the swelling was coming back) and for having to consult with an internist, explaining that he was trained in emergency medicine.

It was a "lightbulb moment," I'm ashamed to say, because before that I had thought of ER doctors as all-knowing, and of course they're not. I could not have asked for more from that physician. Good ER doctors are worth their weight in gold!

By Speechie — On Sep 27, 2011

Emergency room doctors are so important! I have had to go to the emergency room for severe bladder problems at three in the morning!

Emergency room doctors have helped me and my loved ones on several occasions.

You can not help when you have an ailment that requires a doctor's care and knowledge, so it is nice that their are emergency room doctors for so many emergencies that can not wait or are too severe to be seen by a family doctor.

Since I cannot give a personal thanks to all the emergency room doctors who have helped me and others, for all sorts of crazy things and all kinds of crazy times, the least I can do is say/shout THANK YOU!

By kylee07drg — On Sep 27, 2011

My uncle was an emergency room doctor for about 7 years. He was good at his job, but sometimes, death was inevitable.

Somehow, he dealt with this. I think he bottled it all up inside and stonewalled his emotions toward it. He had relationship problems due to intimacy issues, whereas he once was cuddly and open. He had to change, much like military men come home colder than when they left.

Eventually, all the death got to him. He kept having nightmares, and he starting questioning existence in general. He left the hospital to open up a private practice, and today, he is much happier treating colds and stomach aches than rushing against time to save lives.

By wavy58 — On Sep 26, 2011

I had to see an emergency room doctor when I had an allergic reaction to some medication. I had noticed an area of my body starting to swell and continuing throughout the day, but I kept popping antihistamine and hoping it would go down.

By 6:30 p.m., it had swollen so much that I knew I had to go. All of the doctor’s offices were closed by that time, so off to the emergency room I went.

I had to sit in the waiting room for about two hours. When the nurse questioned me, she asked me to tell her what my pain level was on a scale of 1 to 10. I said a ‘5,’ because it wasn’t pain so much as a state of being extremely uncomfortable.

The doctor took one look at me and said I had experienced an allergic reaction. He gave me some medicine, along with some pain pills. I was surprised to get pain pills, but I guess a ‘5' is high enough to show a need for them.

By John57 — On Sep 25, 2011

I don't know how many emergency room doctors are on staff during the night, but I am sure there are many times when there aren't enough.

I also don't have any idea what an emergency room doctor salary is, but I don't think it would be enough for the stress and responsibility that is on their shoulders.

One of my friends was involved in a skiing accident and spent most of the night in the emergency room. This happened to be an extremely busy night in this small hospital.

As I sat there I reminded myself that although I would have rather been sleeping, I was thankful the situation was not nearly as serious as some of the cases that were being seen that night.

By SarahSon — On Sep 25, 2011

When my husband was training a horse one evening he pulled a groin muscle and couldn't walk. Somehow he was able to get in the car as I drove him to the emergency room.

We didn't go until later in the evening, so this was the only option available. As I was sitting there waiting to hear from the doctor, there were several people who came in very distraught.

There had been a bad car accident and I don't think one of the people made it. This made me realize how quickly an emergency room doctor must react to many situations and there would be many times they have to give family members bad news.

By andee — On Sep 24, 2011

I had to go to the emergency room when I was stung in the back of the head by a bee. I had been stung by bees before, but this time I began having a very strange reaction.

I am glad the closest emergency room is only about 20 minutes away. I spent most of the day there as I had a second reaction a few hours after the first.

I saw the emergency room doctor several times throughout the day. Even though I was in a room by myself, I could tell there were a lot of other people coming and going throughout the day.

Working in an emergency room medicine job would be interesting because you never know what is going to happen in a day, but it would also be stressful and not everything always ends well.

By cafe41 — On Sep 24, 2011

I was watching a program the other day about a typical day of an emergency room physician and even though they think quickly on their feet, there are times when they don’t know what is wrong with their patient.

They run all kinds of tests and many times they come up empty. It must be so stressful when that happens because the patient wants answers and sometimes the emergency room doctor doesn’t have all of them. It really takes a special person to be an emergency room physician.

I know that I could not do the work. It would be too stressful for me, and I would never know how to tell a family member that their loved one died. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to tell a family member this devastated news, it never gets easier. This is one profession that has to be a true calling.

By ceilingcat — On Sep 23, 2011

@Monika - I think it depends on what you're in the emergency room for. I took my boyfriend to the emergency room awhile back and he ended up having viral meningitis. Needless to say, the doctor spent significantly more time with my boyfriend than what you're describing.

The doctor also performed a lot of the tests himself. A tech drew my boyfriends blood, but when he had to have a spinal tap, the doctor who was seeing him did that.

By Monika — On Sep 23, 2011

One thing I've noticed is that emergency room doctors really don't spend that much time with their patients. Like the article said, the nurses get the patient checked in, take their vitals and gather information on their symptoms.

Last time I was in the ER the doctor spent all of 5 minutes with me, total. He didn't even come back to talk to me before I checked out-the nurse came in and told me all my tests were normal and I could go. I know they're busy, but seriously?

By manykitties2 — On Sep 22, 2011

@lonelygod - It is good to hear that the emergency room doctor was such a great help to your mom. I recently had to go into an emergency room for severe back pain after I fell off a horse. They were really swift at making sure an emergency room nurse was monitoring me, and that I had all the correct tests done.

I think that a lot more funding should go into emergency room costs because that is where a lot of the lifesaving happens at hospitals. When I was there another person was recovering from a heart attack. I know they wouldn't have made it without immediate help.

By lonelygod — On Sep 22, 2011

An emergency room doctor saved my mother's life a few months ago. She suffered from a stroke and the only way to help her was by taking her into the emergency room because of how late it all happened.

The doctor in emergency did a great job of diagnosing my mother quickly and making sure she had the right emergency medicine and care.

I was really impressed with the doctor and how professional he was at even three in the morning. I really believe that emergency room jobs have to the most stressful because you can never be sure of what you'll be dealing with next.

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