Where Should I go for Help?
Primary Care, Urgent Care, and Emergency Care
When you’re sick or hurting, it’s important to know where the best place is to get help. Going to the wrong place could leave you on the hook for medical bills, or it could result in a dangerous delay in getting the care you need.
Your primary care doctor is the doctor that you normally see for check-ups and ongoing care. This doctor normally has a specialty in a field like family medicine, internal medicine, or pediatrics (for children). They may also be a Nurse Practitioner or a Physician’s Assistant.
Nurse Practitioners are nurses that have had special training, and they’re able to write prescriptions and see patients like a doctor as long as they have a doctor to supervise them. Physician’s Assistants are medical providers who also practice under a supervising doctor, much like a Nurse Practitioner. NPs and PAs can be found in many different medical specialties.
About Primary Care
You’re probably already familiar with your primary care doctor. They may have an on-site X-ray machine and/or an on-site laboratory. They may also have an ultrasound machine in the office. They probably don’t have a CT scanner or an EKG machine, so they sometimes have to refer you to other providers to get testing or treatment that’s more specialized.
Primary care doctors usually work regular business hours, so they’re often closed in the evenings and on weekends. You usually have to call for an appointment before seeing them. But some primary care doctors have extended hours (evenings or weekends) and offer walk-in care for sicknesses. Check with your primary care doctor’s office to find out if they have a policy for seeing sick or injured patients.
Usually, primary care is going to be the best option if you’re on a budget. Most insurance co-pays are lower for primary care visits than urgent care or emergency care, and if you’re paying out-of-pocket, primary care is usually available at a lower price. However, your insurer may have certain rules about whether you’re allowed to see a doctor who’s out of network, and if you’re unfamiliar with your insurer’s network policies, you could wind up having to pay out-of-pocket for primary care.
Primary care doctors are meant to be your first point of contact with the medical community, but they don’t handle everything. When you have a clear need for more advanced medical care or testing, they usually make referrals to specialists or to other facilities.
When You’re Sick or Injured
If your primary care doctor has urgent care hours or same-day appointments, you can contact them for anything that’s not an emergency. If they don’t have availability, they may suggest that you see a local urgent care facility or emergency room. After you leave an urgent care or emergency facility, you’ll want to follow up with your primary care doctor, usually within a few days. Your urgent care or emergency facility will usually give you some guidelines to follow, so if your condition worsens or flares up again, you may need to call or return for additional care.
Primary care doctors are excellent at managing chronic concerns, although you may be assigned to a specialist for some chronic issues. If you have a chronic medical issue, talk to your primary care doctor about when to see urgent or emergency care for related symptoms, flare-ups, or relapses.
Urgent care is an option in healthcare that allows you to be seen for urgent concerns when your primary care doctor is unavailable. Many primary care doctors offer appointments or walk-in hours for urgent concerns, but there are also freestanding, pharmacy-based, and hospital-based urgent care clinics that you can use. They have X-rays and basic laboratory facilities on-site. The medical staff is usually NPs, PAs, and doctors that specialize in something like family medicine or internal medicine.
About Urgent Care
Urgent care is a lot like your primary care doctor, but they usually have extended hours and/or accept walk-ins. They aren’t really equipped to handle emergency care (see below), so they’ll usually refer serious emergencies to an emergency facility, but they’re usually going to be cheaper and/or have a lower co-pay than emergency care.
When to See Urgent Care
Urgent care is a great option if you need treatment today, but not right now. Minor cuts and scrapes, a cold, a flu, an ear infection, or a minor burn can usually be treated effectively by an urgent care doctor, but bigger issues will require emergency care. It’s also important, if you have any chronic or ongoing concerns, that you talk to your doctor about which symptoms may warrant an emergency or urgent care visit, as your own medical needs may require a different level of care.
What if I go to Urgent Care when I need Emergency Care?
When you go to an urgent care facility, they will usually evaluate you to determine the severity of your problem. If you have a problem that’s more serious than they can handle, they’ll usually refer you to a local emergency department. It’s important to remember, however, that in an emergency, any delay in getting the right care can be dangerous, so emergencies are best handled by an emergency department or facility.
Emergency care is the highest level of care available to someone with a medical emergency. This may be provided by a hospital-based emergency room or by a freestanding emergency facility.
In a freestanding emergency facility, you’ll probably find that most of the doctors are certified in emergency medicine and many of the nurses are trained and experienced trauma nurses. In a hospital-based emergency room, you’ll find many certified and experienced emergency/trauma providers, but you may also have a generalist, an NP, a PA, or a medical resident providing your direct care.
About Emergency Care
Emergency care is all about speed. In an emergency, they can’t send you down the road for a CT scan and wait on that to come back, so they’ll have an X-ray, CT scanner, and ultrasound machine in the emergency department. To help them detect heart attacks, they have an EKG machine, and they have a higher level of laboratory testing than in urgent care facilities.
All of the extra equipment and more highly trained staff results in an increased cost to the consumer or their insurer. For this reason, even insured patients may find that their co-pay is highest when seeking emergency care. While it does carry an extra cost, that cost pays for additional capabilities and expertise.
In an emergency, every second counts, so it’s important that the emergency facility have everything they need at their fingertips, from EKGs to medications. Maintaining all this preparedness is more expensive, but it also makes you safer in an emergency situation.
Getting Emergency Care
Emergency facilities use a system called triage to determine who gets care first, so just because you were the first person to check in doesn’t mean that you’ll be the first person to be called back. When the waiting room is full, you’ll usually be evaluated by a nurse when you check in, and that nurse will check your vital signs and make a determination as to how severe your problem is. Patients with serious problems that require immediate care (within minutes) will usually be taken back to an exam or treatment room immediately, whereas patients with less immediate issues may have to wait a long time.
The wait times can vary widely from facility to facility. Hospital-based emergency rooms will often have a longer wait time than freestanding emergency facilities, and usually, a hospital with an attached trauma center will have the longest wait times of all, because they see the largest percentage of severe cases. This can differ depending on the time of day, the day of the week, and how your own issue compares in severity to the issues of the people around you.
When to Seek Emergency Care
Emergency care is used when you need immediate (right now!) care, and if you feel that delaying that care would be dangerous to your life, limbs, or eyesight. You may want to talk to your primary care doctor about which issues are dangerous to you in your specific medical circumstances, but emergency care is usually your best bet if you’re having problems like these:
- Very high fever
- Severe trauma
- Broken bones
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart attack symptoms
- Stroke symptoms
- Uncontrolled bleeding
- Major burns
- Electric shock
- Deep wound
- Fainting or passing out
- Unusual or bad headache
- Severe allergic reaction with trouble breathing, swelling, and hives
- Severe cough that makes it difficult to breathe
- Severe pain, especially abdominal, back, or throat pain
- Severe nausea or vomiting, especially if you can’t keep anything down
- Flu-like symptoms, especially with high fever or when a dangerous flu outbreak is present
Where Should I Go?
Emergency care is the highest level of care you can get, and an emergency care facility can usually handle less serious problems, too. If you get mixed up and go to an emergency facility for an urgent care issue, you’ll still get the care you need quickly, but you may have to pay more or wait longer (especially in busier emergency departments).
Urgent care can be an excellent alternative to emergency care. If you get mixed up and see an urgent care clinic for something that’s really an emergency, they’ll usually refer you to emergency services. This may cause a dangerous delay in treatment or an additional cost, as you’ll usually have to pay for the urgent care clinic AND the emergency services facility.