You can’t plan when you’ll get sick or need medical attention. So, what do you do if you need a doctor and your primary care physician’s office is closed, or—even worse—if you don’t have a primary care physician in the first place? For most people, this comes down to a decision between going to an urgent care facility and going to the Emergency Room.
However, sometimes it’s not always easy to tell if the health problem you’re having is truly an emergency. Here are a few tips for how to tell when it’s best to go to urgent care and when you should go to the ER.
Understanding the main differences between an ER and an urgent care facility is the first step in making the best choice for your own health or that of a loved one. In general, urgent care centers are designed to treat minor medical conditions during times when the patient’s primary care physician isn’t available. Emergency rooms are designed to treat patients who are suffering from potentially life-threatening conditions.
A good way to tell whether you need to go to the ER or if an urgent care center will suffice is to consider your potential wait time at the ER. An urgent care waiting room tends to operate on a first-come, first-serve basis, whereas the ER treats patients with the most serious injuries or illnesses first. If your ailment is not serious enough to get you seen quickly in the ER, then it might be better suited for an urgent care doctor.
If you’re experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness or paralysis, heart palpitations, difficulty speaking or other symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, don’t hesitate to go to the ER. An emergency room is also the best place to go for any head injuries, deep cuts, bleeding, burns or severe pain. An urgent care center is more likely the right choice if your symptoms have a slower onset and don’t have the potential to endanger your life—such as a sore throat, low to mid-grade fever, vomiting that hasn’t persisted over an extended period of time or mild asthma.
However, there are also cases that fall on one of the two extremes. For instance, some emergencies are so serious that you should call 9-1-1 rather than risk getting to the ER by yourself. Or, other ailments may be mild enough you can wait and see your doctor once regular hours resume.
It’s also important to note neither the ER or an urgent care center should take the place of your primary care physician. Even with the high availability of urgent care facilities, it’s still important to have a primary care physician who knows your health history and can provide more individual medical advice.
Not sure where the right place is to seek treatment? Our comparison chart can help you be prepared.