Risk Management Tools & Resources


Managing Medical Emergencies: A Three-Pronged Approach for Healthcare Practices

Laura M. Cascella, MA, CPHRM


Medical emergencies — unexpected events that lead to bodily injuries or critical medical conditions — can occur anywhere, including healthcare practices. In fact, the occurrence of medical emergencies in healthcare settings might not be as uncommon as many people think. For example:

Examples of Medical Emergencies
  • Allergic reactions
  • Asthma attacks
  • Cardiac emergencies
  • Drug overdoses
  • Epileptic seizures
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Loss of/altered consciousness
  • Respiratory distress
  • Sepsis
  • Stroke
  • A study found that 62 percent of family medicine and childcare offices saw at least one child each week that required urgent care or hospital admittance.1
  • The combined results from two dental studies showed that more than 30,000 emergencies occurred in dental offices over a 10-year period (in a survey of more than 4,000 dentists).2
  • An article in the British Dental Journal estimates that general dental practitioners will experience a medical emergency at least once every 2 years.3

In healthcare practice settings, medical emergencies might be directly related to treatment or therapy, or they might occur by chance. For example, a patient might experience a mild or severe allergic reaction as a result of a medication given during treatment, or a patient who is presenting for routine care may suffer a sudden cardiac arrest in the office waiting room.

Certain situations or factors might increase the risk of medical emergencies, such as patients who underestimate the urgency of their conditions and present to a medical office instead of an emergency department. Emergency situations also may develop as a result of procedures associated with a high degree of patient anxiety, inadequate pain management, or failure to address patient phobias related to medical or dental care.4

Unfortunately, research has shown that many healthcare practices are unprepared to handle medical emergencies.5 Lack of time, financial constraints, and low prioritization can all play a role in thwarting preparedness efforts.

A well-rounded approach to addressing emergent medical crises should include strategies for prevention, preparation, and action.

  • Prevention. Although some medical emergencies are inevitable, others potentially can be avoided. Several steps in the patient care process are critical in the prevention effort, including the medical questionnaire, the provider–patient encounter, and the physical exam. Read more about preventing medical emergencies in healthcare practices.
  • Preparation. Although prevention efforts are an important part of emergency preparedness, medical emergencies can and will occur, making preparation paramount. Considerations when preparing for medical emergencies include developing a response plan, assigning staff roles and accountabilities, devising communication strategies, training providers and staff, and more. Read more about preparing for medical emergencies in healthcare practices.
  • Action. When a medical emergency occurs, healthcare providers and staff members should be ready to quickly implement the practice’s emergency response plan. Although the action strategy might differ based on the type of emergency and other factors, providers and staff members should stand ready to implement both medical and communication responses. Read more about taking action during medical emergencies in healthcare practices.

In Summary

Although medical emergencies often are unpredictable, healthcare practices can take proactive steps to ensure that patients receive efficient, appropriate, and coordinated care in an emergency situation.

A threefold approach that addresses prevention, preparation, and action can help healthcare practices develop or evaluate their emergency response plans, implement comprehensive emergency management procedures, support staff training and readiness, and reinforce a culture of safety.


1 Toback, S. L. (2007, June). Medical emergency preparedness in office practice. American Family Physician, 75(11), 1679–1684. Retrieved from http://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0601/p1679.html

2 Dentistry IQ. (2004). Medical emergencies in dentistry: Prevention and preparation. Retrieved from http://www.dentistryiq.com/articles/wdj/print/volume-2/issue-10/you-and-your-practice/medical-emergencies-in-dentistry-prevention-and-preparation.html

3 Jevon, P. (2020). Medical emergencies in the dental practice poster: Revised and updated. British Dental Journal, 229, 97–104. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41415-020-1789-y

4 Dentistry IQ, Medical emergencies in dentistry; Malamed, S. F. (2010). Knowing your patients. Journal of the American Dental Association, 141(Suppl 1), 3S–7S.

5 Toback, Medical emergency preparedness in office practice.

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