Medical Emergency
June 23, 2023

Best Practices for Responding to Medical Emergencies

Best Practices for Responding to Medical Emergencies

Best Practices for Responding to Medical Emergencies

People receiving services often have complex medical needs. As a result, staff may have to respond to medical emergencies. A timely and well-executed response is critical to ensure immediate assistance is provided by first responders. A delay in accessing medical care can have potentially catastrophic consequences. People with special needs are living increasingly longer lives, and multiple studies have identified that they are more likely to have co-occurring conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and epilepsy than the general population, making timely access to quality health care even more critical.

The scope of the problem

In 2021, the Justice Center substantiated nearly 250 cases involving inadequate medical care, including cases where a lack of a timely and appropriate response to a medical emergency was identified as a contributing factor.

Types of medical emergencies

Emergent events can vary drastically from provider to provider, but there are a few common events that should always prompt immediate medical intervention:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Facial drooping or weakness in an arm or leg
  • Chest pain
  • Head trauma
  • Uncontrolled bleeding
  • Poisoning
  • Major broken bones
  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings
  • Falls
  • Sudden blurry or double vision
  • Suspected overdose
  • Choking
  • Severe/Constant abdominal pain

The best way to ward against confusion when an emergency arises is to prepare staff for all possible incidents – this list may vary depending on provider circumstances.

  • Implement protocols and directives for staff to recognize and respond to potential medical emergencies such as breathing difficulties, falls and head injuries.
  • Ensure policies empower direct support professionals and other staff to call 911 without first seeking approval from a manager, supervisor, or RN
  • Provide initial and refresher training in First Aid, CPR, and recognizing signs and symptoms of illness
  • Train staff to recognize signs of medical distress specific to the unique diagnoses or medical conditions of people receiving services. Consider using a “pain picture” to help staff recognize when someone is in pain and/or supplementing training with videos that provide a visual depiction of medical distress.

The Justice Center has developed a toolkit dedicated to providing agencies with resources that help staff respond to medical crises. The kit includes agency best practices, training tips, and case studies to support internal training protocols. Click below to download the full toolkit.




Remember: Agencies should always instruct staff to call 911 immediately for medical emergencies.