When to go to the emergency room

Get the facts

When medical emergencies come up, it can be hard to know what to do. Should you try to reach your doctor or head to the emergency room? Emergency room waits can be long – the sickest patients are the first to get treatment. You may find quicker care at medical settings such as urgent care centers, walk-in doctor’s offices, or walk-in retail clinics. These accredited facilities are staffed with doctors, nurses, and physician’s assistants and are typically open evenings, weekends and on some holidays. You’ll not only get high-quality care, you’ll pay far less than you would for an emergency room visit deemed medically unnecessary. Some insurers provide a Nurse Hotline to help determine the best course of action.

It’s always a good idea to plan ahead, so be sure to check which local facilities are in your insurer’s network

Where should you go?

Urgent Care Centers: Staff doctors are on hand to treat conditions that are serious enough to require immediate medical attention, but don’t merit the ER. They can handle stitches and sprains, animal bites, and do x-rays and lab work (e.g. testing for strep).

Walk-in Doctor’s Offices: You usually don’t need to be a patient to see a physician and no appointment is needed. These are good alternatives for common conditions such as headaches, vomiting, and mild asthma attacks.

Retail Health Clinics: Typically found in major pharmacies or retail stores, these clinics are staffed by healthcare professionals such as nurses and physician’s assistants. They treat everyday problems like sore throats and ear pain, minor cuts and rashes and provide preventive care, such as administering flu shots.

When should you go?

Emergency Room

  • Sudden loss of consciousness
  • Heart attack signs, such as severe chest pain
  • Stroke signs, such as numbness, sudden loss of vision and difficulty talking
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Cuts or wounds that won’t stop bleeding
  • Possible broken bones
  • Poisoning
  • Trauma to the head
  • Sudden, severe abdominal pain
  • Suicidal thoughts

Urgent Care Center, Walk-In Doctor's Office, or Retail Health Clinic

  • Animal bites
  • Stitches
  • X-ray
  • Lab work (e.g. testing for strep)
  • Back pain
  • Sprains
  • Mild asthma attack
  • Minor headache
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Vaccinations
  • Rashes
  • Minor bumps, cuts, scrapes
  • Minor fever, cold symptoms
  • Burning with urination
  • Cough, sore throat
  • Ear or sinus pain
  • Minor allergic reaction
  • Eye swelling, irritation, redness or pain 

Sources

When to Call 911, Your Doctor, or the Hospital," University of Rochester Medical Center, (accessed 31 Jan. 2013)

Emergency Care vs. Urgent Care," FairHealthConsumer.org, (accessed 31 Jan. 2013)

Alternatives to Emergency Room Care," BCBS.com, (accessed 31 Jan. 2013)

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