Should You Go to the Emergency Room or Urgent Care?
It's Saturday morning, your throat is sore, you have a low fever, and a rash has broken out on your body. You don't think waiting until Monday to see your primary care doctor is wise.
Where do you go?
All too often, illness or injuries appear out of the blue: You wake up in the middle of the night with intense abdominal pain. You stumble while carrying groceries up a flight of stairs, and can no longer put weight on your swollen ankle. Or your baby spikes a high fever on the weekend.
When these situations occur, we’re often faced with uncertainty about where to go for care, especially if the symptoms seem severe and our regular doctor’s office is closed.
While the answer is not always simple, knowing the difference between urgent care and emergency care and where to seek treatment could save your life in a medical emergency.
“I Think It's An Emergency ...” If you think you are in a life-threatening situation but you're not sure, play it safe and go to the nearest ER.
What are the differences between Urgent Care or an Emergency Room?
“Recognizing the differences between ‘emergency’ and ‘urgent’ care can be confusing, because both terms imply there is a medical need that needs to be addressed quickly,” says Shawn Evans, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. “However, there are distinct differences between hospital emergency rooms and traditional urgent care centers, including the level of care that can be provided at each.”
Urgent care clinics help fill a vital gap when you become sick or injured, but your regular doctor is not available and you can’t wait for an appointment. “If your sudden illness or injury is something you would normally feel comfortable addressing with your primary care doctor, then an urgent care setting is probably more appropriate than the emergency room,” says Dr. Evans.
Hospital emergency departments provide medical care at any time, day or night. However, unlike urgent care centers, they are equipped and staffed for even the most complex or critical needs, including life- and limb-threatening situations ranging from heart attack and stroke to traumatic injuries following a car accident.
Is it time for the ER?
There are a number of medical conditions that are considered emergencies because they can require rapid or advanced treatments (such as surgery) that are only available in a hospital setting.
Symptoms that are best evaluated in an emergency room include:
• Persistent chest pain, especially if it radiates to your arm or jaw or is accompanied by sweating, vomiting or shortness of breath
• Difficulty breathing
• Any severe pain, particularly in the abdomen or starting halfway down the back
• Sudden clumsiness, loss of balance or fainting
• Sudden difficulty speaking, or trouble understanding speech
• Altered mental status or confusion, including suicidal thoughts
• Sudden weakness or paralysis, especially on one side of the face or body
• Severe heart palpitations
• Sudden, severe headache
• Sudden testicular pain and swelling
• Newborn baby with a fever (a baby less than three months old with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher needs to be seen right away)
• Falls that cause injury or occur while taking blood thinning medications
• Sudden vision changes, including blurred or double vision and full or partial vision loss
• Broken bones or dislocated joints
• Deep cuts that require stitches — especially on the face — or a large open wound that won’t stop bleeding
• Head or eye injuries
• Severe flu or cold symptoms
• High fevers or fevers with rash
• Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
• Severe and persistent vomiting or diarrhea
• Serious burns
• Seizures without a previous diagnosis of epilepsy
“Trust your gut,” says Dr. Evans. “If your personal instinct or your motherly intuition tells you it’s serious, don’t hesitate — go to the nearest emergency room.”
When to call 911?
For certain medical emergencies such as a heart attack or stroke, calling 911 for an ambulance is always the right decision. This is because paramedics often can begin delivering life-saving treatment on the way to the hospital.
Urgent care is not emergency care?
A study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics found that among patients who had visited the emergency room but were not admitted to the hospital, 48 percent went there because their doctor’s office was not open.
“Many people use the ER as a place to receive after-hours care for minor illnesses or injuries without realizing they have another option,” says Dr. Evans.
Urgent care centers are same-day clinics that can handle a variety of medical problems that need to be treated right away, but are not considered true emergencies. Symptoms that can be evaluated and treated at an urgent care clinic include:
• Fever without rash
• Ear pain
• Painful urination
• Persistent diarrhea
• Sore throat
• Minor trauma such as a common sprain or shallow cut
If your symptoms come on gradually or you already know the diagnosis — for example, you have repeat urinary tract infections, or you recognize when your child has come down with an ear infection — it’s worth calling your primary care doctor’s office to see if you can get a same-day appointment. After all, your primary care doctor knows your health history, including what treatments have worked best in the past and whether you have other medical conditions that need to be taken into consideration.
However, while urgent care clinics are not a substitute for your primary care physician, they are a great resource when you need care but can’t get in with your doctor.
How can I be prepared for medical care?
Whether you’re going to an urgent care clinic, the ER or your primary care physician’s office, it’s a good idea to bring a list of all the medications you take, including over-the-counter medicine, vitamins and supplements. This list should include how much of each medication you take as well as how often you take it.
Also keep with you a list of any allergies (including medication allergies) and any previous medical procedures or surgeries you’ve had. When listing procedures and surgeries, note the dates they were performed and the names of the physicians or surgeons who treated you.
“Especially in an emergency setting, it can be very helpful for the physician treating you to know whether you’ve had operations in the past, or whether you’re allergic to medications or anesthesia,” says Dr. Ogeda.
What should I expect in the emergency room?
Traditional emergency rooms have long wait times, limited parking, and uncomfortable waiting areas.
Our emergency room wait time at Fast ER Care is less than 10 minutes, allowing for faster care when you need it most. This seamless process starts with your check-in and registration where you’ll be quickly registered and evaluated. Once in the ER, you’ll be seen by an emergency care nurse and physician at the same time, so you only have to explain your symptoms once. Your emergency care team may then order additional tests or prescribe a treatment plan to get you back home or directly admitted to the hospital as soon as possible.
Use an Emergency Room for:
• Open fractures
• Severe bleeding
• Chest pain
• Head injury or other major trauma
• One-sided weakness or numbness
• Loss of consciousness
• Severe abdominal pain
For a heart attack or stroke, call 9-1-1.
When a medical emergency strikes, you need the highest quality of care fast. In a moment of crisis, it may be hard to decide when to go to the ER versus an urgent care center. Understanding the difference between the two and what services they provide can make all the difference during a medical emergency.
Urgent care locations or walk-in clinics typically treat the average flu or sprain, making them ideal for medical treatment when your primary care doctor’s office is closed. While urgent care centers are great for quickly diagnosing and treating a variety of medical conditions, they are not equipped to handle more serious maladies or injuries.
When an urgent care clinic does not offer the level of healthcare services you need, going to nearest ER is always your best choice. If your condition is serious, you need the attention of experienced board-certified physicians and ER nurses only found at an emergency room and are a priceless resource in any medical crisis.
If you’re in doubt about your or a loved one’s condition, always go to the closest emergency room.
Emergencies Don't Wait. Neither Should You.
We pride ourselves on providing top-quality emergency care, quickly.
In an ideal world, when you are sick or injured, you can go to your primary care doctor for treatment. However, that is not always possible. You may need more immediate care, or your problem might be more severe and require X-Rays or other diagnostic tests. Sometimes, you may need help when your doctor's office is closed. In those cases, it's time to head to an urgent care center or emergency room.
With the cold and flu season picking up, some doctors at Fast ER Care are educating the public on when to go to the urgent care versus an emergency room.