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Emergent, urgent or primary: Know the difference

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You wake up sweating at 3 a.m. 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 p.m. 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 a.m., 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 Care

Emergency rooms (ERs) 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:

  • Head injuries with loss of consciousness, drowsiness and/or confusion
  • Severe burns
  • Severe chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Excessive or uncontrollable bleeding
  • Choking
  • Coughing or vomiting blood
  • Seizures
  • Compound fractures
  • Sudden or severe headaches, paralysis or weakness
  • Sudden changes in vision
  • Anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction)
  • Electric shock
  • Fever above 105 or a fever that is unresponsive to medication

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

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:

  • Sprains and strains
  • Minor fractures
  • Rashes and skin irritations
  • Minor cuts and abrasions
  • Mild to moderate asthma
  • Moderate back pain
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Ear infections
  • Sinus infections
  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Fever or suspected flu or COVID
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Minor eye injuries

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

Primary care providers (PCPs) are set up to function as the hub of your health care. They are typically open regular business hours and provide preventive as well as routine health care 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 health care 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:

  • Physicals and annual exams
  • Preventative care
  • Prescription management and refills
  • Vaccinations
  • Disease management (diabetes, asthma, heart disease, etc.)
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Referrals to specialists
  • Treatment of minor illnesses and injuries during open hours

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 health care wherever and whenever you need it.

Joseph L. Chow, MD, is president of TeamHealth Ambulatory Care. Article provided by Flagler Health+.

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