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Urgent Care, a Doctor Visit or the ER? Here’s the Best Time for Each

When you or a family member gets sick or hurt, it can be difficult to tell where to go for care. Is it serious enough for the emergency room, or would urgent care be a better choice? Should you wait for an appointment with your primary care doctor or your child’s pediatrician or see the first health care professional you can find? The answers to these questions aren’t always clear cut. This quick guide can help you decide where to go to get the best care for your particular situation.

When to Go to the Emergency Room

It may sound obvious, but a visit to the emergency room should be reserved for potentially life-threatening situations. Medical emergencies require rapid or advanced treatment and imaging technology that is often not available at an urgent care facility or doctor’s office. Here are a few of the conditions that can signal a life-threatening situation:

  • Head, neck or spinal injury
  • Deep cuts or open wounds that won’t stop bleeding
  • Broken bones or compound fractures (damage has broken skin)
  • Severe or persistent chest pain
  • Shortness of breath or heart palpitations
  • Severe/persistent abdominal pain, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Sudden vision changes, confusion or loss of balance that’s not quickly cured by sitting down, drinking water, etc.
  • Severe burns
  • High fever in newborn babies

Life-threatening conditions like these are best treated by going to the ER right away or by calling 911. If you’re not comfortable driving yourself or don’t have someone to take you to the ER, don’t hesitate to call 911. When in doubt, trust your instincts. If you or a family member think something is seriously wrong, you’re probably right.

When to Visit Urgent Care

In most cases, out-of-pocket costs for visiting an urgent care center or your primary doctor will be less than a trip to the emergency room, but it’s always a good practice to make sure the option you choose is covered by your plan.

For example, some health plans may charge you a penalty if you visit the emergency room and aren’t admitted, or offer access to helpful telehealth services.

Taking the time to familiarize yourself with your plan’s co-pay and coverage options beforehand can help you make quick and informed decisions later.

Urgent care facilities are meant to treat acute injuries that are not life-threatening. They’re a good choice when your primary care doctor or pediatrician isn’t available, such as on a weekend, in the evening or on short notice. Staff at urgent care centers often treat less severe versions of the ailments listed above, including:

  • Fever and vomiting
  • Sore throat and other cold/flu symptoms
  • Minor burns, rashes and other skin irritations
  • Animal bites
  • Lacerations
  • Infections
  • Simple fractures (damage has not broken skin) and sprains
  • Nose bleeds

Because emergency rooms see patients based on need, wait times there can be longer than at urgent care. Most urgent care clinics treat about 90 percent of patients within an hour; emergency rooms only treat about 12 percent of patients during the same time.

When to See Your Primary Care Doctor

If your condition isn’t an emergency and you don’t need care right away, your primary care doctor or pediatrician should be your first call. Your doctor knows your health history, including any chronic conditions and what medications you’re taking. While you’ll report some or all of this information to an urgent care physician, a snapshot of your health on a form is not the same as years of care from the same doctor. Primary care doctors are more likely to notice small changes in your health because they have an established baseline from your previous visits.

In addition to treating both acute and chronic conditions, primary care doctors also provide health education and promote good health management. These benefits aren’t as likely to occur in an urgent care center. Some doctor’s offices also offer a helpline that lets you speak to someone who can recommend whether to make an appointment or visit urgent care or the ER instead.

No matter which health care option you choose, it’s a good idea to bring along a list of all the medications you take, including over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and supplements. This list should include how much of each medication you take as well as how often you take it. The LHSFNA’s Smart Medicine pamphlet makes it easy to track this information. This and other publications can be ordered through our online Publications Catalogue.

[Nick Fox]

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