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Hospital emergency departments

10-minute read

In an emergency medical situation, call triple zero (000)
and ask for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Emergency departments are open 24-hours a day if you need treatment for a serious medical condition.
  • In the emergency department a nurse will triage (assess) your condition, and in this way, determine how urgently you are treated.
  • An emergency department doctor or specialist nurse will then examine you, and recommend either staying in the hospital for further treatment, care by your community health providers, or transfer to another hospital.
  • Before you leave the hospital, you should make sure you understand your condition, your treatment and follow-up plan.
  • Alternatives to the emergency department for less urgent problems are your GP, an urgent care centre, pharmacist or calling healthdirect.

What is an emergency department?

An emergency department (ED) is part of a hospital that provides 24-hour emergency care to patients who need urgent medical attention for severe injuries or illness. Most public hospitals in Australia have an emergency department.

EDs have trained doctors and other healthcare professionals to care for you if you have a medical emergency. When you come to the ED with a serious illness or injury, specially trained staff will assess, treat and start your care as needed.

Some EDs provide services only to particular groups of patients, for example, EDs at children’s hospitals and some women’s hospitals. Most EDs accept all emergencies.

In an emergency medical situation, call triple zero (000)
and ask for an ambulance.

To find your closest emergency department, use the healthdirect online service finder tool.

If you live in a rural and remote area that is far from a hospital ED, you can check the Royal Flying Doctor Service website for details on how to contact the service near you.

Some areas have Medicare urgent care clinics that are open late and give treatment for non-life threatening injuries or illnesses. Examples include bites, stings, rashes and minor cuts.

If you’re not sure what to do, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 for advice, 24 hours a day (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

When and why should I visit an ED?

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

You may need to go to ED for these severe or urgent conditions:

If you’re injured from an accident or other incident, you may also need to go to an ED. Some examples include:

If you are pregnant and experience an emergency, you can go to ED or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. If your concern is less urgent, contact your usual doctor, midwife, or maternity unit.

Your GP is the best person to treat minor emergencies such as sprains and strains, minor infections and for the management of ongoing illness or injury.

Your local pharmacist can provide support to help you manage your health. They can help you manage minor symptoms such as colds and flu, skin conditions, allergies, headaches, diarrhoea or constipation, or sleeping problems. They can guide you on when to see your doctor or other health professionals. Pharmacists can also advise you on how to access specialist services in your area or find reliable health information.

In regional and rural areas of Australia, emergency care may be provided by different medical staff, such as GPs or rural doctors, nurses, Royal Flying Doctors Service and paramedics.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What happens first when I visit an ED?

When you go to an ED, the first step is usually for hospital staff 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. If you have My Health Record, the ED doctors and nurses may also use this to better understand your health conditions. This step does not happen in a medical emergency.

The triage nurse

EDs use a triage (pronounced tree-arj) system, which ensures the people who need help most urgently are treated first.

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

  • triage category 1 — needs treatment immediately
  • triage category 2 — needs treatment within 10 minutes
  • triage category 3 — needs treatment within 30 minutes
  • triage category 4 — needs treatment within 1 hour
  • triage category 5 — 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 medicine or order some initial tests.

If your condition gets worse or changes, let the triage nurse know. You may be asked to avoid food and drink while you wait to see a doctor.

The ED doctor

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

In some cases, emergency departments have specialised nurses and allied health staff instead of, or to support, doctors. You might be offered to see a social worker or referred to other doctors or specialist nurses.

The doctor might also recommend that you:

  • stay in a hospital ward overnight or longer
  • have treatment, but stay in the ED for a while for observation
  • have treatment such as stitches, dressings, a plaster cast, or have surgery
  • receive a prescription for medicine
  • are discharged for follow-up by your general practitioner (GP)
  • are referred to a specialist or outpatient clinic
  • go to another hospital better suited to your health condition

What should I ask before being discharged from the ED?

Before you are discharged from hospital, ask for:

  • details of your health condition, treatment and medicines, including what treatment to continue once you go home
  • advice about when to see your doctor again and a letter for your doctor (known as a discharge summary)
  • a letter for Work Cover or a medical certificate for your employer, if needed

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How much will I pay to visit an ED?

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

Read more on paying for healthcare.

Alternatives to an ED

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

Other options include:

  • an after-hours doctor to visit you in your home
  • urgent care clinic
  • speaking to a pharmacist
  • calling healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for advice from a registered nurse, who may offer you a call back or a video call from a GP who can provide advice.
  • calling a mental health service such as Beyond Blue or Lifeline for non-urgent advice

The healthdirect Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Resources and support

To find your nearest hospital emergency department or after-hours medical service, use the healthdirect Service Finder tool.

Watch the video on What care do I need? or read the healthdirect page How to find the right health professional.

The healthdirect Mental health resources article offers details on where to access support, including suicide prevention and mental illness or crisis.

Lifeline provides 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services — call them if you or someone you are with is feeling or acting suicidal.

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

Last reviewed: June 2023

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