Ask The Experts: When Should I Go To The ER?
Torra Jones, MD, a Franciscan Physician Network board-certified family medicine physician and medical director of Franciscan ExpressCare and Franciscan Physician Network Walk-in Clinic in the south suburban Chicago area, answers your questions about how to decide between going to urgent care or to the emergency room.
Q: When Should I Go To the ER? Are There Symptoms That Always Point To The Emergency Room?
A: People who believe their lives are in jeopardy should always go to the ER immediately. Always call 911 or go to the emergency room for symptoms that arise suddenly, such as chest pain, which can mean a heart attack, or the sudden onset of slurred speech and/or numbness in the arms or legs, which can indicate a stroke.
Other symptoms that indicate an ER visit include:
- coughing up or vomiting blood
- shortness of breath
- possible poisoning.
When you suffer a life- or limb-threatening medical condition, a severe illness, or a serious injury, the emergency room is the best option for treatment.
Q: What Are The Differences Between An Urgent Care Center or ExpressCare And An Emergency Department?
A: The biggest difference between urgent cares and emergency departments is the level of care and treatment each facility provides. Most urgent care centers are staffed with board-certified family medicine physicians who specialize in treating minor conditions and non-emergencies, while emergency rooms are staffed with board-certified emergency medicine physicians who specialize in treating life-threatening emergencies and major illnesses. Emergency rooms also have advanced imaging equipment and diagnostic resources that may be needed for treating limb- or life-threatening emergencies.
The wait times in the urgent care facility are usually shorter than in the emergency rooms, where life-threatening conditions are treated first and less serious situations such as colds, sprains, and minor cuts are treated as the ER providers’ time allows. Treatment costs also differ. Visiting an urgent care facility is usually less expensive than visiting the emergency room.
Q: When Should I Go To Urgent Care Instead Of The ER?
A: Patients should visit an urgent care facility if they experience minor illnesses or injuries such as a sprain or fracture, minor wounds, or lacerations requiring suturing or stitches.
Patients who visit urgent care centers are either unable to see their primary doctor or have no medical provider.
Urgent care facilities can efficiently handle conditions such as:
- Sore throats
- Urinary tract infections
- Abdominal pain
- STD screenings
- Back pain
- Mild asthma flare-ups
- Various types of rashes
- Minor burns
- Allergic reactions
Most urgent care centers can also provide school physicals, vaccinations and sports exams.
They do not require an appointment, and Franciscan ExpressCare locations treat patients of all ages. Licensed medical providers, including physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, are supported by clinical staff, including RNs, medical assistants, radiology technicians and/or EMTs. Most locations have on-site X-ray imaging and laboratory services.
Q: What Should I Do If I Don't Know Whether To Go To Urgent Care Or The ER?
A: If you don't know whether you should go to the emergency room or urgent care, seek guidance from your primary care doctor. (Most physician offices do have an after-hours line.)
Otherwise, most insurance cards have a nurse hotline number on the back, and urgent care centers always have a medical professional on site who can discuss symptoms and give appropriate direction. At times, you may be told based on your symptoms that an emergency room is best.