By: Joseph L. Chow, MD
President, TeamHealth Ambulatory Care
You wake up sweating at 3 AM on a Sunday morning with severe chest pain and nausea. Should you try to go back to sleep or call 9-1-1?
It’s 7 PM on a Tuesday when you misjudge a curb and roll your ankle on an evening walk. Do you ice it and hope for the best or head to a nearby urgent care clinic?
It’s Wednesday at 10 AM, and you’ve been suffering with joint pain and fatigue for several days now. Can this be ignored or should you call your doctor?
Sometimes when medical situations arise, it’s hard to know whether to call your primary care doctor, visit the nearest urgent care center, or head straight to the emergency room. But there are some basic guidelines that can help you discern when and where to go the next time you or someone in your care is dealing with a medical issue.
Emergency rooms (ER’s) are set up to provide 24/7 treatment of the most serious and/or severe symptoms. They have advanced imaging and lab resources onsite and quick access to providers in specialty areas. Some examples of conditions that warrant an immediate trip to the ER include:
Emergency Room visits are expensive and often time-consuming, but the ER is always the best option for life or limb-threatening conditions. If you or someone in your care is experiencing difficulty breathing, signs of a stroke or heart attack, or a life-threatening injury, call 9-1-1 rather than driving to the nearest Emergency Room.
Urgent care centers have set hours which include evenings, weekends, and holidays, and most centers don’t require an appointment. They may offer X-ray and basic lab services. The purpose of urgent care is to treat urgent but non-life-threatening medical conditions that arise during hours when your primary care provider is unavailable. Examples of conditions that are often treated in urgent care include:
Urgent care centers are typically less expensive and quicker than visiting an Emergency Room. They may be staffed by physicians, nurse practitioners, or physician assistants. They provide a convenient and efficient option for after-hours illnesses and injuries or same-day appointments when your regular physician is unavailable. However, it’s important to remember that urgent care is designed to supplement rather than to replace your primary care provider.
Primary care providers (PCP’s) are set up to function as the hub of your healthcare. They are typically open regular business hours and provide preventive as well as routine healthcare for you and your family. Their goal is to help patients by providing comprehensive care, disease prevention, diagnosis of acute and chronic illnesses, medication management, and patient education. Your PCP partners with you on an ongoing basis as you navigate the healthcare system. If you can schedule an appointment and be seen by your PCP, they are the best choice of care for non-life-threatening conditions since they know you and your medical history. Examples of primary care offerings include:
Primary care, urgent care, and emergency care are designed to work in tandem with each other to ensure that you have access to appropriate, quality healthcare wherever and whenever you need it.