How to choose between the ER, urgent care and your PCP

[3 MIN READ] 

In this article: 

  • While primary care physician offices, urgent care clinics and emergency departments are all places where you can receive care, they serve different purposes and specialize in different areas.  

  • Knowing which type of care to seek for which type of health need can save you time and money.  

  • Understand your health care options now so you don’t waste time when seconds count. 

How to choose between the ER, urgent care and your PCP 

Each year in the United States, there are more than 130 million visits to the emergency department. Yet a significant number of those visits could likely take place in a less-expensive setting, such as an urgent care clinic or doctor’s office. That’s why it’s important to know which health care option to use when, so you can get the medical attention you need when you need it — and at the lowest possible cost. 

In a recent Seattle Times article, Arooj Simmonds, M.D., divisional chief medical officer at Providence Swedish Medical Center, said seeking emergency care for something that doesn’t actually need emergency attention isn’t uncommon. “In our health care system, we often try to go to the highest level of care first,” she explained. “It may be how we’re wired. The reality is that your primary care provider can take care of so much.” 

Primary care 

Scheduling annual wellness checks and screenings with your primary care provider is an important way to stay on top of your health, especially if you have chronic conditions. Plus, most practices reserve same-day or next-day urgent appointments for established patients. These appointments can cover a range of ailments, including: 

  • Asthma, sore throats and cold/flu symptoms 
  • Minor allergic reactions 
  • Minor illnesses and burns 
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea 
  • Sinus infections 
  • Urinary tract infections 

If you need further medical treatment or require specialist services, your primary care doctor can make referrals and connect you with the proper resources.  

If you aren’t sure whether to see your primary care doctor, visit an urgent care clinic or go to the ER, you can also call your doctor’s office and ask to speak with a nurse. They can give you guidance on what to do given the circumstances. 

Telehealth 

If you’re an established patient with a primary care provider, you can also make a telehealth, or virtual, appointment to treat many types of aches and pains. The secure, high-definition video connection can cut down on travel time, increase your access to your doctor and reduce the time it takes to diagnose and treat your ailment. 

The types of conditions your doctor can treat via telehealth include: 

  • Common upper respiratory issues, like allergies or infections 
  • Eye problems 
  • Gastrointestinal issues 
  • Minor pains, strains, burns and insect bites 
  • Skin and nail infections, rashes and lesions 

Urgent care 

If it’s an evening or weekend when your primary care doctor isn’t available and you need same-day care, an urgent care clinic may be your best option. Urgent care facilities typically don’t require an appointment, are open on weekday evenings and weekends, offer onsite X-ray, and can stitch skin and cast broken bones. Most offer lab tests, immunizations like flu shots, and can deliver intravenous fluids, as well. 

The health concerns providers at urgent care clinics can help with include: 

  • Earaches 
  • Nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain 
  • Rashes without fevers 
  • Small skin wounds 
  • Suspected sprains or broken bones 
  • Urinary tract infections 

Emergency department 

When seconds count, the ER is usually the way to go, Dr. Simmonds adds. ERs are set up to meet urgent surgical needs and provide advanced imaging for strokes, appendicitis and other genuine emergencies — like a head or eye injury, heart attack, bleeding during pregnancy, severe burns, accidental poisoning or a wound that won’t stop bleeding. 

You should also seek emergency care for medical conditions including: 

  • Blurred vision, vision loss or slurred speech 
  • Chest pain, difficulty breathing or severe shortness of breath 
  • Paralysis  
  • Seizures 

“Remember that illness looks different in kids versus adults,” Dr. Simmonds says. A fever in an infant is a more severe symptom than it is for an older teen. 

You also may need to visit the ER if your illness or injury isn’t life threatening or a medical emergency but happens after-hours when your doctor’s office and nearby urgent care clinics are closed. Timing matters, too, Dr. Simmonds notes. 

That’s why you should know your health care options in advance, she says, such as your doctor’s office hours and the hours of nearby urgent care clinics.   

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Contributing Caregiver 

Arooj Simmonds, M.D., is the divisional chief medical officer at Providence Swedish Medical Center. A board-certified anesthesiologist, Dr. Simmonds earned her medical degree from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Columbia and completed her anesthesiology residency program at the Virginia Mason Medical Center. She also completed a cardiothoracic anesthesia fellowship at the Duke University School of Medicine. 

Learn what drives Dr. Simmonds’ commitment to Providence Swedish and the communities it serves.  

Find a doctor 

If you are looking for a primary care doctor, you can search for one who’s right for you in our provider directory

Download the Providence App 

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make Providence’s app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your doctor, view your health records and more. Learn more and download the app

Related resources 

Don’t wait to get your hepatitis vaccine 

Under the weather? Know how to care for a cold or flu and when to see a provider. 

Flu shots lessen the impact of a COVID-flu combo

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions. 

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