Should I Call an Ambulance or Drive to the Hospital?


When should I call an ambulance?

Here's when to call an ambulance, according to guidelines from the American College of Emergency Physicians:

  • The person's condition appears life-threatening
  • The person's condition could worsen and become life-threatening on the way to the hospital
  • Moving the person could cause further harm or injury
  • The person needs the skills or equipment used by paramedics or emergency medical technicians (EMT)
  • Driving would cause significant delay in getting to the hospital

Call 911 if you think you or someone else is experiencing a medical emergency.

Main Line Health has four acute care hospitals with emergency departments in the western suburbs of Philadelphia:

Lankenau Medical Center and Paoli Hospital are level II trauma centers equipped to handle injuries that are potentially life-threatening such as falls, automobile accidents and sports injuries.

How to determine if a condition is life-threatening

Deciding whether or not to call an ambulance is a decision you'll have to make based on your best assessment of the situation. Even if you think you can get to the hospital faster in your own vehicle, please remember that the ambulance is equipped to start emergency care as soon as it arrives.

Here are some examples of life-threatening conditions requiring an ambulance. The person:

  • Appears to be having a stroke (think F-A-S-T: Facial droop, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Time to call 911)
  • Appears to be having a heart attack
  • Has lost consciousness, is unresponsive, or is not responding appropriately
  • Is having a seizure
  • Is having shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Is bleeding uncontrollably
  • Is having a severe allergic reaction
  • Has severe burns
  • Has swallowed something poisonous
  • Has thoughts of harming themselves or others
  • Has taken too much medication on purpose or by accident, including drug misuse or abuse

If you’re trying to decide whether or not to call an ambulance, it’s better to call and have it come. In this region, an ambulance usually arrives within about 10 minutes.

How to call an ambulance

The number to call for an ambulance in the United States is call 911. When calling for an ambulance, do your best to remain calm and speak clearly. Be prepared to:

  • Provide the name of the person having the emergency and what the problem seems to be
  • Share the location information and specific address, if possible
  • Tell the dispatcher where the person is located, such as in the back yard or in the downstairs bedroom
  • Provide the phone number you're calling from
  • Stay on the phone with the dispatcher in case the dispatcher needs more information

If you witness or are part of a highway emergency, do your best to make note of highway marker numbers or exit signs. Also determine which lane and in which direction the accident occurred so you can communicate as clearly as possible with the dispatcher.

What to expect when you call an ambulance

The EMTs and paramedics are able to provide certain kinds of care on the scene and while in transport, which can help save a person's life or minimize pain and suffering. The ambulance will go to the nearest appropriate emergency room based on the level of care needed and the availability of anticipated resources, such as specialized stroke, trauma, or pediatric care. Once at the hospital, the ER staff will determine which patients get seen first. Just because you arrive in an ambulance doesn't necessarily mean you get first priority. You will be seen based on level of need.

Cost of an ambulance ride to the hospital

How much you have to pay depends on your health insurance coverage and any deductible you might have. If you have to take an ambulance to the hospital, you will be billed at a later time by the ambulance company. Check with your insurance provider for more information about the cost of ambulance transport. Above all, do not delay calling for an ambulance when you think one is needed.

If you do not need an ambulance, here's how to decide whether you should go to the ER or urgent care.

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