NSW Government NSW Health
South Eastern Sydney Local Health District
nsw health

Visiting an emergency department

Emergency departments operate 24 hours a day to provide the community with vital health care for the acutely ill and injured. The following information aims to outlines the role of the emergency department and what you can expect if you have to attend an emergency department.

Who should use the emergency department?

The main function of an emergency department, or ED, is to treat patients who are suffering from an acute serious illness or injury that would lead to severe complications if not treated quickly. The ED is not designed to provide ongoing care. Patients requiring urgent attention will always be seen first.

Treatment in the ED is based on clinical need and not your financial situation or whether you have health insurance. Most emergency departments are very busy and treat thousands of patients each year. Patients are treated in order of medical urgency, not necessarily in order of arrival. Care is delivered to all patients regardless of culture, beliefs, conscientious convictions, sexual orientation or disability and privacy will be respected at all times.

To ensure the sickest patients are seen first, a sorting mechanism called triage (to sort) is used to categorise patients. Triage is performed by an experienced triage nurse and occurs very soon after arrival. The triage system is in place in all hospitals throughout Australia. The activities of our emergency departments are reviewed regularly as a part of the Area's commitment to providing quality care and skill, in keeping with recognised standards, practices and ethics.

What if it's not an emergency?

Non-emergency conditions are best treated by your local doctor or after hours medical centre because:
  • You are more likely to see the same doctor each time
  • You usually won't have to wait as long to be seen
  • It frees up emergency departments to treat emergency cases

Attending the ED

When you arrive at the ED you will be triaged. This means that before you see a doctor, you will see a number of staff who will establish how sick you are, and collect personal information. This may include a triage nurse, nurse practitioner and clerical staff.

Triage Nurse

If you are not brought to the ED via ambulance, one of the first people you will see is the triage nurse who will ask you questions and assess how urgent your condition is. Triage ensures that the sickest people are treated first. After triage you may stay in the waiting room until your name is called. If your condition gets worse while you are waiting, tell the triage nurse immediately.

Nurse Practitioner

You may also find yourself in the capable hands of the emergency department's nurse practitioner, one of the new breed of experienced registered nurses who is authorised to work at an advanced level of clinical practice. With their wider scope of influence and specific nursing knowledge, the nurse practitioner is often able to accelerate the treatment of patients in emergency or help move them into a more appropriate setting whether in the hospital or elsewhere.

Clerical Staff

Clerical, or non-clinical staff, are responsible for registering vital information about your identity. They also deal with issues relating to any charges that you may incur as a result of your visit, including:
  • Establishing your identity
  • Establishing your Medicare status
  • Recording your contact details including employment contacts if it’s a work related problem
  • Establishing contact details for your local treating doctor/GP.

What happens when you see the doctor?

When your name is called you will be taken into the examination and treatment area of the emergency department. You will be looked after by different nursing staff and doctors.

Your doctor may need to order diagnostic tests or an x-ray. This may involve further waiting.

Following your treatment, if your condition doesn't require your admission to the hospital, emergency staff will allow you to go home after discussion about any follow-up care. Many follow-up treatments can now be provided to you at home or through outpatient facilities and community-based health teams.

Make sure you let your family doctor know that you needed to visit the emergency department.