Should I go to the nearest emergency room, urgent care or primary care?

June 5, 2019

All medical care options are not the same. You believe you may need medical attention but do you know when to visit an urgent care, a primary care provider or head straight for the nearest ER?

A doctor checks the heart beat of a baby
Knowing where to receive health care when you are injured or ill may save you time and money. Photo by Getty Images.

A lot of folks choose the latter but maybe shouldn’t, said Dr. Michelle Hagstrom, an emergency medicine physician at the UCHealth Emergency Room in Parker.

“I’d say at least half of our patients could be managed by a primary care physician or urgent care. It doesn’t mean that they don’t need medical attention, but a lot of things they come in with could be handled in other ways,” Hagstrom said.

Nearest ER for acute symptoms

Patients should always go to the nearest ER if they are having “acute or severe symptoms that would be expected to result in serious health consequences if not treated,’’ Hagstrom said.

Head injuries, loss of vision or speech (signs of a stroke), chest pain, over dose, severe abdominal pain or severe bleeding or poisoning would warrant a visit to the emergency room.

For other conditions, it’s best to consider the appropriate place to receive care. Thoughtful decisions about where to go for medical care can save patients time and money.

“Sometimes people think their sore throat needs to be treated immediately, or a cut on their finger is life-threatening—but most of those things can be treated in a doctor’s office or at urgent care. There’s a lot of leeway in there,” Hagstrom said.

Call your doctor for help

If there is a question about where to obtain care, “a call to your primary care office may help direct you. They can tell you if it is something the office can treat, or if Urgent Care or nearest ER is best,’’ Hagstrom said.

One of the big differences in the levels of treatment is cost.

“If you go to your primary care doctor, you may have a copay and additional charges for tests. Urgent care charges are usually slightly higher than primary care,” she said. “But I’d say save the ER for true emergencies. The cost of urgent care is considerably lower. You pay about 10 times as much to go to an ER,” Hagstrom said.

If you go to the nearest ER for a twisted ankle, for example, “you are likely to get the same evaluation, treatment, advice and recommendations as an urgent care clinic, but the ER is going to cost you a lot more,” Hagstrom said.

You may also save time by going to an urgent care because some emergency rooms are crowded, especially those attached to hospitals.

“If you go to a busy ER for a minor situation, you’ll wait for others with more critical situations to go ahead of you. These facilities have to prioritize. Obviously, a heart attack comes before a sinus infection,” Hagstrom said.

Urgent Care

Urgent care clinics are often – though not always – faster than a hospital ER. “It can depend on the location,” she added. Urgent care clinics, however, have specific times in which they are open and the services available at individual clinics vary.  Some may have X-ray and lab services, others may not. When considering where to seek care, call ahead to an urgent care facility and ask about the services.

Patients who have serious underlying conditions, however, should probably go to the nearest ER even if it seems like a minor situation, Hagstrom said. For example, if you’ve had a serious health condition, a chronic health issue, are on a lot of medications or have had a transplant.

If a complaint is something that can wait until the following day, Hagstrom recommends that you “see your doctor. You’ll have an appointment and save time and money.”

Before you consider a trip to the emergency room, ask yourself a few questions.

“Is it something that’s been going on for a few days and you just want to get it checked out? That’s probably one for the primary care physician or specialist you’ve been seeing. If you’re having complications from surgery, for example, you would want to contact the surgeon first.

“Is it sudden in onset and causing significant distress? Then you should go to the nearest ER,” Hagstrom said. Also go for chest pain, abdominal pain, bleeding, sudden neurologic changes, or acute injuries with obvious disability or deformity (indicating a possible broken bone).

Whenever an injury or illness arises, make good choices about where to seek care. Doing so may save you time and money.


About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs and a regular contributor to UCHealth Today. She has written travel articles for major U.S. newspapers and national, regional and local magazines. She spent 32 years as an award-winning writer, reporter and editor for The Gazette in Colorado Springs.