When To Call 911

You know 911 is only for emergencies. But how can you tell if your child's case is urgent? Use our expert guide to map out the best no-panic plan -- before you need it.

Is It an Emergency

Making the call on when to call is a tricky debate among parents, pediatricians, and paramedics. Some contend that panicked parents call 911 for nosebleeds and sprained ankles, tying up rescue services at the expense of those who truly need them. Others argue that when it comes to a child's health, you're always better safe than sorry. But there's no disputing one thing: The time to map out a 911 plan is now, when you're calm. Here's a primer on when and how to reach out for help.

Is It an Emergency?

That's the million-dollar question. While there are legendary tales of misuse, the majority of unnecessary calls are from well-intentioned parents on the fence about whether the event qualifies as an emergency, says Dennis C. Whitehead, M.D., chief of emergency medicine at Dickinson County Hospital, in Iron Mountain, Michigan. "It's easy to see in retrospect that a child had gas pains, not appendicitis," he says, "but when you're flustered and you don't have any diagnostic tools at hand, how do you know?"

Follow your instinct and dial 911 if you have the terrifying feeling that your child might die, says Scott D. Berns, M.D., medical director of the pediatric trauma service at Hasbro Children's Hospital, in Providence. That means you should call right away if a child is turning blue, not breathing, lethargic, or unconscious. But if the situation is not as clear-cut, you should probably call your pediatrician first to see whether you should come into the office, drive to the emergency department, or call an ambulance.

In those gray areas, there's another reason to think twice (quickly) before calling 911: "An ambulance ride is a very traumatic event. If you've got a situation that isn't life-threatening, save yourself that experience," suggests Dr. Berns. And the cost of the ambulance -- which can total upwards of $2,000, depending on where you live -- is hardly incidental. It's certainly worth finding out your health provider's policy ahead of time so you know what you're in for. Kaiser-Permanente, for example, recently signed a first-ever contract for its enrollees with a national emergency medical service. Under the program being rolled out this year, members call a local emergency number (not 911) and are guaranteed paid medical transport.

On the other hand, if you think you're too distraught or distracted to drive safely -- and particularly if you feel that your child is in grave danger -- then you're better off calling an ambulance, even if you're not sure the ride is covered. Although you might think you can get your child to the hospital more quickly in your own car, remember that paramedics will be able to start treating your child's condition or injury en route to the emergency room. And you can always take on your insurance carrier later.

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