When to Go to the ER vs. Urgent Care vs. a Walk-in Clinic (podcast)

Scripps treats emergencies and offers same-day service for non-emergencies

Podcast photo featuring Shawn Evans, MD, emergency care.

Dr. Shawn Evans, Emergency Medicine, Scripps La Jolla

Scripps treats emergencies and offers same-day service for non-emergencies

So you have a sore throat, a cough, or maybe you cut yourself chopping vegetables. What if your baby spikes a fever, or you yourself are in pain or feeling dizzy or weak? Where should you go? The emergency room, urgent care, or a walk-in clinic? When should you call 911?


The answers to these questions could actually save your life.


In this episode of San Diego Health, host Susan Taylor and guests Shawn Evans, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, and Siu Ming Geary, MD, an internal medicine physician and vice president of primary care for the Scripps Clinic Medical Group, discuss the different types of same-day care available, when to go to the emergency room and where to go for non-emergencies.


Unlike urgent care and the ER, walk-in clinics like Scripps HealthExpress treat low-acuity problems — such as a sore throat, ear infection, or sprained ankle — when a patient can’t wait for an appointment with his or her primary care doctor. For an illness or an injury that’s serious, but hasn’t become life- or limb-threatening, urgent care is the way to go. A hospital emergency room is generally reserved for someone with a life- or limb-threatening condition — such as from an accident, chest pain or an eye injury — who needs help immediately. Call 911 only in extreme situations — such as a heart attack, stroke, heavy bleeding — or if a patient needs immediate care and can’t get to the hospital on their own or with the help of a friend or family member.

Learn what constitutes an emergency and non-emergency

Learn what constitutes an emergency and non-emergency

Podcast highlights

What is urgent care? (1:25)

Dr. Evans: Urgent care is for when you have a disease or an illness where you're not going to have a life or limb-threatening problems within a week.


It might be an after-hours problem, or anything where someone doesn't feel imperiled, where they know they're going to live more than 24 hours.

How is urgent care and emergency care different? (1:48)

Dr. Evans: The emergency department is traditionally reserved for people who feel they won't have 24 hours to live or they have a limb-threatening event. So somebody who has had a sudden accident, a sudden severe headache perhaps, they can't see. Ultimately it turns to fever, neck stiffness, or they're unable to swallow, have chest pain or pain radiating to their back, sudden abdominal pain, vaginal bleeding with abdominal pain in pregnancy. All these represent emergencies as there can be life or limb-threatening injury or illness within 24 hours.

What are Scripps HealthExpress walk-in clinics? (2:22)

Dr. Geary: Unlike urgent care and emergency rooms, our walk-in clinics are really for low-acuity problems, things that you do want to be seen for the same day, that you don't want to wait for. For example a cough, strep throat, urinary tract infections. You can have abdominal pain, rash, minor sprains, minor trauma, things that are not serious enough to warrant a trip to the urgent care or the emergency room, but your doctor may not have an appointment for you that day. That's exactly what I would use the walk-in clinics for.

When should you call 911? (3:02)

Dr. Evans: I think 911 should be reserved for people who typically can't mobilize themselves. They can't get up and walk on their own. It's for someone who's dizzy or has chest pain, someone who's blood pressure may be disturbed, somebody who has been injured and can't get up. That's what traditionally 911 is reserved for. It's for situations where they shouldn't drive themselves, but if they have somebody, a neighbor or a family member who can get them to the hospital within 10 to 15 minutes, typically they're going to do fine.


Dr. Geary: I would also add that 911 is for when there are conditions that should not wait to be treated. So we think of heart attacks. We think of strokes. We think of severe rapid bleeding. In those cases, time really is critical and if you call 911, the ambulance can take you to the emergency room that much more quickly. You don't have to deal with traffic. You have to reserve it for those conditions.

What are symptoms that require emergency care? (4:27)

Dr. Evans:

  • Slurred speech
  • Serious burns
  • Chest pain
  • Concussion
  • Broken bones
  • Head or eye injury

Scripps emergency departments are located in Encinitas, La Jolla, Hillcrest in San Diego and Chula Vista.

What non-emergencies does urgent care treat? (7:00)

Dr. Evans:

  • Fever without a rash
  • Ankle sprain
  • Dehydration
  • Vomit, diarrhea

For vomit, diarrhea and dehydration, I would say urgent care, for the vast majority of people. However, if they have illnesses that take away their immune system, if they're on chemotherapy, if they're in advanced age, or if they suffer from an other illness and have some complex medical background, the emergency department is probably the destination of choice, given the likelihood of them needing hospitalization.


Scripps has urgent care centers in Torrey Pines, Vista and Rancho Bernardo. All have advanced imaging.

What low-acuity, non-emergencies do walk-in clinics treat? (8:32)

Dr. Geary: Our Scripps HealthExpress clinics are ideal for low-acuity problem, such as:

  • Eye pain, eye redness,
  •  Allergies,
  •  Ear pain, ear infections,
  •  Strep throat,
  •  Bladder infections,
  •  Skin rashes.

We have 12 locations throughout San Diego. Our Scripps HealthExpress clinics are open seven days a week, Monday through Friday, 7 am to 9 pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 8 to 5 pm. So, if your doctor is not available or you can't go during work hours, you can just pick up the phone and call us at 858-779-0680. You can actually do a walk in. It's very easy. No appointment is necessary but you can call or go on www.scripps.org and reserve a place in line.


You don't have to be a Scripps patient.

We accept all patients with all different insurances, and also on a cash basis. So, anybody in San Diego can use our services.


We have pediatric specific providers at two of our locations. Currently that's at Rancho Bernardo and Carmel Valley for children three months to 17 years old. The pediatric HealthExpress clinics are available 5 pm through 9 pm, Monday through Friday, and 8 am to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday.

Do walk-in clinics replace your primary care physician? (10:59)

Dr. Geary: No, and they weren't meant to do so. Scripps HealthExpress was really to supplement our offerings for our patients and for all San Diego.


We recommend that you see a primary care doctor for your health physicals, for chronic disease and for anything that requires more than one visit. A primary care doctor can see you for your cough, and your cold and bladder infections. Sometimes, they're closed when you actually need to see them, or sometimes they may not have an opening until two days from now. So, this is an additional resource that we're offering to our patients.

If you're in doubt where to go, what should you do? (11:40)

Dr. Geary: We have a nurse phone line that you can actually call for Scripps HealthExpress. If you're not sure, you can always call and our nurse will actually ask you questions, and based on your symptoms, and your medical history, give you advice on where to go. If you're not sure, and it's something, you think is serious, I recommend you call 911. Better safe than sorry.


But if you go to any of our clinics, if you go to a HealthExpress clinic, and they evaluate you, and you need to be sent to an emergency room or sent to an urgent care, they will let you know at that clinic, at that time.

Why are people reluctant to call 911? (13:01)

Dr. Evans: It can be very hard to acknowledge that you need help. This goes for all of us. Nobody wants lights, and sirens and firemen and folks in big, heavy yellow gear walking up to the house and knocking on the door and to be surrendered to get help.


When a patient arrives in the emergency department, that's probably one of the most sensitive things we see. Folks come in and this is the first time in their life they've really needed help that they felt imperiled. So, 911 is an absolutely wonderful and fundamental element of our society.


When to call is important and I would say that if somebody feels they're going to lose consciousness, if they can't mobilize themselves, if they don't have access to transportation, if they have any of the big three — if their head, their vision, their breathing or their chest or their abdomen feels imperiled or severely injured — they need to get to the emergency department. And it's 911 every time.


Strokes and chest pain are the two most popular source of complaints where people will use 911 appropriately. So, if somebody's dizzy, or has slurred speech, or trouble with their vision, or difficulty mobilizing themselves or chest pain of any sort, that really is 911, so that those access providers can get you there in traffic and you're with somebody who can responsibly take care of you when you're on your way.

What should you bring to urgent care, ER, or walk in clinic? (15:16)

Dr. Geary: Know that the person taking care of you, whether it's the nurse or the doctor, or anybody else, they want to know your medical history in order to treat you appropriately and then give you the best care possible.


They need to know what allergies you have, what medications are you currently taking, (including supplements) what medical problems have you had, or currently have? Have you had any prior surgeries? All of these actually make a difference when a provider who's assessing wants to quickly and accurately diagnose you and treat your condition, whatever it is.


Dr. Evans: I would agree and as accurate as our health care record system is, there's always a little disparity because of recent events where somebody might be on a different medication or they are traveling.


Please keep a list of your medications. Include your allergies. And there's one more thing, provide a phone number of somebody we can reach out to who can give reasonable information in the event that you become unconscious, or alternatively, somebody who knows you and can help you to make decisions, if things are dire.