Is this an Emergency or Not?
A guide to determining the right level of care to meet your needs.
In an ideal world, every medical situation would clear up quickly after a convenient stop at your primary care provider’s office. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Maybe you’re sick today, but you can’t get an appointment with your doctor until tomorrow. Maybe you’re not sure if a possibly sprained ankle justifies a trip to the emergency room. Luckily, we live somewhere with easy access to multiple levels of medical care: primary care providers, urgent care centers, and emergency rooms. If you’re confused about the type of care you need, keep reading. Here are some quick descriptions to help you understand the different levels of care available to you.
Your primary care provider is probably what you think of when you imagine “going to the doctor’s”. This is where you want to start if you have a minor illness or injury. Before being seen, you will need to call ahead to determine if your provider has any sick appointments left for the day, and then wait for your appointment time. Once at the office, your primary care provider will be able to evaluate your symptoms, perform lab work, prescribe medication, or order further tests. For many health concerns, this is exactly the level of care you need. However, if your primary care provider can’t see you for another day or two, or it’s outside of normal office hours, it might be time to consider other options.
Urgent care clinics are a great option if you are sick or injured enough to need to see a doctor the same day, but not experiencing an emergency. In general, urgent care clinics operate on a walk-in only basis, and frequently have longer hours than your primary care provider. A patient at an urgent care clinic will be able to receive immediate care and treatment for mild to moderate illnesses or injuries, including; the flu, pneumonia, bronchitis, minor breaks or sprains, infections, or wounds. Depending on the severity of your illness, a provider at an urgent care clinic may refer you to an emergency room, however they’ll try their hardest to complete your treatment at the urgent care clinic.
Emergency rooms provide 24-hours-a-day, year round care. No matter what time of day, or night, you find yourself experiencing a medical emergency, your local emergency room will be staffed with expert medical professionals ready to provide you exactly the care you need. It’s important to note that an emergency room isn’t designed to replace your primary care provider. Instead, an emergency room is for treating medical emergencies: a potentially life-threatening situation. If you, or a loved one, is in immediate danger of death or permanent disability, then the emergency room is exactly the level of care you need. It can be hard to determine exactly when an illness or injury becomes an emergency, so here are some examples to help you understand:
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe chest pain or pressure
- Severe bleeding
- Sudden inability to move or speak
- Sudden loss of feeling in arms or legs
- Fainting/blacking out
- Coughing or vomiting blood
- Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea
- Changes in vision
- Sudden extreme headache
- Suicidal/homicidal thoughts
- Broken bones
- Deep cuts
This list isn’t complete, but hopefully it gives you an idea of the type of medical issues that should result in a trip to the emergency room.
No matter what type of medical issue you’re experiencing, your first step should be to call your doctor. He or she will be able to direct you to the level of care best suited to providing exactly the treatment you need.