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Hospital emergency departments

4-minute read

The emergency departments of Australian public hospitals received more than 8 million visits in the 2017 / 2018 financial year. About 1 in 3 patients were admitted to hospital. This page tells you what to expect if you go to an emergency department, or ED.

In an emergency situation – or if you are unsure what to do – call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

What is an emergency department (ED)?

EDs are hospital units where you can seek urgent medical care and treatment. Most major public hospital EDs are open 24 hours a day and have highly trained doctors and other health professionals on site to deal with emergencies.

They assess, treat, stabilise and start the health management of people who have come to the ED with a serious illness or injury.  

Some emergency departments specialise: there are emergency department attached to children’s hospitals, some women’s hospitals and some eye or ear hospitals. Most EDs, however, accept all emergencies.

To find your closest emergency department, visit healthdirect’s online service finder.

When and why should you visit an ED?

You should go to a hospital ED if you or your child are seriously ill or injured.

People often take babies or children to public hospital EDs if they become ill suddenly. Many older people go there for urgent attention too.

Most people go to EDs with types of condition that include:

What happens first when you visit an ED?

When you go to an ED, the first step is usually for an administrative staff member to get your name, address and Medicare number. This is important to make sure that you receive the treatment you need, and to avoid confusing your healthcare management with anybody else’s.

This step is bypassed in an emergency.

The triage nurse

All EDs use a system of triage (pronounced tree-arge), which is designed to ensure the people who need help most urgently are treated first. You will generally see a triage nurse after your name, address and Medicare number have been taken.

The triage nurse will talk to you and might examine you, and will then place you in 1 of 5 categories:

  • resuscitation – needs treatment immediately
  • emergency – needs treatment within 10 minutes
  • urgent – needs treatment within 30 minutes
  • semi-urgent – needs treatment within 1 hour
  • non-urgent – needs treatment within 2 hours.

You may be taken to a treatment room right away or asked to wait in a waiting room. The triage nurse might give you pain relief medication and they might order some initial tests.

If your condition gets worse or changes, let the triage nurse know. You will probably be asked to avoid food and drink during this time. 

The ED doctor

In time, you will be seen by a doctor or specialist in a private area. They will talk to you and examine you to assess your condition and decide what treatment or medication is needed. The doctor may order blood testsx-rays, scans or other tests.

This step, too, can be bypassed in an emergency.

In some cases, emergency departments use highly qualified nurses and specialist allied health teams instead of, or to support, doctors.

You might be asked to see a social worker or other doctors or specialist nurses. The doctor might also recommend that you be:

  • admitted to hospital
  • observed and treated but remain in ED for the moment
  • treated with stitches, dressings, a plaster cast or that you have surgery
  • prescribed medicine
  • discharged for follow-up by your general practitioner (GP)
  • referred to a specialist or outpatient clinic
  • transferred to another hospital for treatment

What should you obtain before being discharged?

Before you are discharged from hospital, ask for:

  • details of your health condition, injury etc
  • information about any treatment given; whether it should continue once you leave; and how this will be arranged
  • information about what to expect when you leave, and what to do next
  • a letter for your doctor (general practitioner, or GP)  
  • a letter for Work Cover or a medical certificate, if appropriate.

What is the cost of visiting an ED?

Visits to public hospital EDs are free for Medicare card holders. You may be charged if you go to a private hospital emergency department.

Alternatives to an ED

If you have a minor illness or injury that does not need emergency treatment, you can ask for an appointment with your GP during regular hours, or visit an after-hours medical centre.

Other options include:

  • asking an after-hours doctor to visit your home
  • going to the nearest walk-in clinic or nursing post
  • seeing a pharmacist for advice on medication for ailments like coughs
  • calling healthdirect on 1800 022 222 for advice from a registered nurse
  • calling a mental health counselling service such as beyondblue for advice. 

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2019

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