Should You Go to the Emergency Room or Urgent Care?

How to know where to go for your pressing health care needs

When an emergency strikes, you know you need medical care fast. But what if you’re not sure if it’s a true emergency? How can you tell if what you or a loved one is experiencing should have you rushing to the ER?

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 an emergency.

Time for the ER

“Emergency departments are an essential part of our health care system,” says Shawn Evans, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. “They are there to provide medical care at any time.”

The emergency department was designed to provide fast, life-or-limb-saving care. Many people, however, use the ER as a place to receive urgent care without realizing it. If you’re ever in doubt, it’s better to be safe and go to the closest ER. These are just a few of the conditions that are medical emergencies:

  • Persistent chest pain, especially if it radiates to your arm or jaw or is accompanied by sweating, vomiting or shortness of breath
  • Persistent shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Severe pain, particularly in the abdomen or starting halfway down the back
  • Loss of balance or fainting
  • Difficulty speaking, altered mental status or confusion
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Severe heart palpitations
  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Sudden testicular pain and swelling
  • Newborn baby with a fever
  • Intestinal bleeding
  • Falls with injury or while taking blood thinning medications
  • Loss of vision
  • Head and eye injuries
  • Broken bones or dislocated joints
  • Deep cuts that require stitches – especially on the face
  • Head or eye injuries
  • Severe flu or cold symptoms
  • High fevers or fevers with rash
  • Bleeding that won’t stop or a large open wound
  • Vaginal bleeding with pregnancy
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Serious burns
  • Seizures without a previous diagnosis of epilepsy

You may also be sent to the ER by your doctor if you have an underlying condition, such as hypertension or diabetes, which could complicate your diagnosis and require extra care.

When to call 9-1-1

Sometimes driving yourself or a loved one to the emergency room won’t get you the medical care needed fast enough.

“Many people are confused about when to call 911,” says Dr. Evans. “It’s better to be safe than sorry. If you are in doubt, please call 911. Do not drive if you are having severe chest pain or severe bleeding, if feel like you might faint or if your vision is impaired.”

For certain medical emergencies, such as a heart attack or stroke, taking an ambulance is safer because paramedics can deliver life-saving care on the way to the hospital.

Urgent care is not emergency care

A study conducted by the National Center for Health statistics found that of 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 physicians’ offices are now offering same day appointments for care, but urgent care is an option for when appointments are unavailable or if you need treatment outside of office hours.

Urgent care departments are same-day clinics that can handle a variety of conditions that need to be treated right away but is not an emergency. Some symptoms that can be treated at urgent care include:

  • Fever without rash
  • Minor trauma such as a common sprain
  • Painful urination
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Severe sore throat
  • Vomiting

If your symptoms come on gradually or you already know the diagnosis, such as a urinary tract infection, you may want to try to get a same day appointment with your primary care provider. While urgent care clinics are always available, your primary care physician will have a better picture of your overall health for a more accurate diagnosis.

Check out our infographic to learn more about emergency and urgent care. (PDF, 974 KB)

Urgent Care or ER small

Be prepared for medical care

Whether you’re going to urgent care, the ER or your primary care physicians’ office, it’s a good to keep a list of all the medications you take with you including dosages and any over-the-counter medications and vitamins. Many medications, and even vitamins, can interact with the treatment options your physician plans to use.

Keep a list of any allergies, especially to medications, with you that also includes any previous invasive medical procedures and surgeries, the dates they were done and the names of the physician or surgeon who treated you.

“Knowing about past operations can be very helpful to an emergency physician in making an accurate diagnosis,” says Dr. Evans.

Find the care you need

Scripps offers four emergency room locations, three urgent care offices and primary care physicians throughout the county. Visit the Scripps Doctor Finder to search for a care provider who’s right for you. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of a stroke or heart attack, call 9-1-1.

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