Emergency care can save your life if you’re critically sick or injured. But for less severe complaints, you may get faster and less expensive treatment by calling your primary care doctor or heading to an urgent care center.
In most cases, your doctor’s office is your best first call for help. But, when the situation seems severe or when your doctor’s office is closed, knowing where to turn can get you the most appropriate level of care in the shortest amount of time.
Call your doctor when:
- You have an earache, cough, sore throat or cold
- You have a question about a chronic health problem
- You’re not sure where to go
Your doctor may have cancellations or walk-in appointments available. Your doctor knows you — and your medical history. He or she can serve as a valuable resource between appointments.
Urgent care centers treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries. They are good options when you need same-day care outside of normal office hours or when your doctor is not available. Urgent care is the right choice for injuries or illnesses that require more advanced care or equipment than is available in your doctor’s office.
- Sprains or strains of your arms or legs
- Broken bones where you don’t see an obvious deformity
- Headaches that are not typical for you
- Minor illnesses such as sore throat, cough, earaches, flu or low-grade fevers
- Minor burns or cuts that may need a few stitches
- Urinary tract infections
- Persistent vomiting or diarrhea
- Most low back pain
If an illness or injury is severe or if you need care immediately, the emergency room is the right choice. “Emergency rooms are equipped and staffed to handle complex and critical care needs,” says Dr. Julie Phillips, an emergency medicine physician affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital.
“If you have severe abdominal pain; a complex fracture with a bone protruding through the skin; a significant head injury; sudden or severe headaches; or any other severe abdominal pain, chest pain or difficulty breathing, then the ER is the right choice,” she adds.
Other symptoms that should direct you to the ER include suspected stroke; seizures; traumatic injuries from a vehicle accident or fall; poisonings; or drug or alcohol issues.
Also, for mental health issues, the emergency room is the right choice because most urgent care centers do not offer mental health services.
While driving to the emergency room may be appropriate in many cases, Dr. Yphantides emphasizes that there are times when you should call 911 for any life- or limb-threatening emergency, especially when you are dealing with mental status changes, particularly lethargy, drowsiness, confusion, agitation or unusual irritability. “If you have trouble speaking or seeing, which could indicate a stroke, loss of consciousness, or if you suspect a severe heart attack or stroke, then call 911,” he says.
If you do end up in the ER, Dr. Phillips stresses the importance of follow-up care. “It’s important to ask what you should do to continue your recovery after you go home. By following these instructions carefully, you can help avoid a return visit. If you can’t call your doctor before heading to the ER, do it afterward. He or she needs to know what happened, so you can both take care of your health going forward,” he says.
These are general guidelines and every situation is different. If you have specific questions, your primary care doctor’s office or Sharp Nurse Connection®, the after-hours nurse telephone service for Sharp Rees-Stealy patients and members of Sharp Health Plan, can provide guidance on the appropriate place to receive care.