Do you know where to go? How to choose between primary care, urgent care, and the ER

The last time your car needed repairs, you went to a mechanic. The last time you needed a haircut, you went to a salon or to your neighborhood barber. When you need a doctor, however, it’s not always a clear-cut choice of what kind of care to seek out.

Do you go straight to an ER? Do you seek out an urgent care center? Or do you try to book an appointment with your primary care physician, hoping that they can squeeze you in over the course of the next 24 hours?

It all depends on the severity of your symptoms, and it’s important for you to know what to do in all situations. Dr. Aparna Tamaskar, board-certified family medicine physician with Easton Hospital, says that it’s important for patients to be able to recognize that some situations – such as a heart attack or stroke – absolutely require Emergency Room care, while symptoms indicating a less severe ailment can wait.

“If you have an emergency, go to the ER because time is precious. For stroke and heart attack victims, that first hour is so important. It’s what we call the ‘golden hour,’ and there could be a lot of lives lost in this hour if patients don’t go to the emergency room,” says Dr. Tamaskar. “An urgent care facility or your primary care physician won’t always have the right equipment to diagnose you, and won’t have the kinds of drugs that can help you in a heart attack or stroke situation.”

Of course, in this current age of information being available at our fingertips 24/7, anyone with a computer or smartphone is able to jump online and self-diagnose. Unfortunately, because of blogs and crowd-source websites, information that is out there about certain conditions may not always be accurate. Undoubtedly, one of the most common challenges for practitioners is working with their patients to make an efficient, accurate and distinct diagnosis after a patient has misinterpreted something they’ve read online.

This issue also often presents a double-edged sword. While self-diagnosis is not recommended over seeking appropriate medical attention, it is also associated with better patient compliance and self-care, and shows that a patient has a desire to improve. However, it is important to remember that a registered physician is the only person who can make an accurate diagnosis – and that communication is the key to any good doctor-patient relationship.

“Patients go online all the time and it’s common practice nowadays. It’s a very common thing, and patients will look at all of the possible complications and scenarios and they will try to self-treat or listen to what friends tell them,” says Dr. Tamaskar. “It’s not a good idea.”

When to see your primary care physician (PCP)
Your primary care physician – the doctor who is responsible for dealing with a majority of your health care issues – should be your first call in non-emergency situations. Because this doctor knows your health history, including what medications you’re taking and what chronic conditions you have dealt with, they and their staff may also ultimately serve as a referral source for other health care providers or specialists who you would see for a new or ongoing condition.

Making an appointment with your PCP can help you avoid the wait times typically found at other alternatives such as an emergency room or urgent care center. Though it is not always a guarantee that your PCP can see you the same day that you call for an appointment, Easton Hospital’s network of providers often have next-day and even same-day availability to see their patients as soon as possible.

“In my case, I try to accommodate my patients as soon as possible because my patients are very dear to me and they are like my extended family,” says Dr. Tamaskar. “I always make sure that my staff is on top of their scheduling needs. If my patient is sick but not at the level of an ER visit – say, for a sore throat or for bronchitis – I prefer that they come to me instead of going to an unknown urgent care. Even if I’m running a little behind because I’ve booked many patients on that day, I’d rather compromise my own time than compromise my patients’ health.”

When to go to an urgent care center
Urgent care centers have popped up all over the place in recent years, and are ideal if something happens outside of the normal business hours of your PCP. Most urgent care centers have later weekday hours and some weekend hours when doctors’ offices are typically closed. When is it most appropriate, however, to visit an urgent care center as opposed to an ER?

Urgent care centers can provide comprehensive medical treatment for a wide variety of injuries and illnesses, such as: cuts and scrapes; fevers; ear and sinus pain or pressure; cough and sore throat (or general cold or flu symptoms); stitches; sprains; back pain; minor fractures; headaches; allergies, allergic reactions or rashes; asthma-related symptoms; irritation, and eye irritation, swelling or pain.

It is important, however, to remember that urgent care centers are not equipped to handle emergency situations.

“I was the director for an urgent care center, and I have seen many patients walk in there where you have to either call an ambulance for them or send them to the ER. The same thing happens in outpatient settings, where patients walk in and they have chest pain, and then we’re running around trying to stabilize them and calling an ambulance,” says Dr. Tamaskar. “Urgent care centers do have x-ray facilities and lab facilities, and they can be a stepping stone in order to get the patient to the right place where the patient is supposed to be. They can help to streamline the process and instead of a patient waiting around, they now have a path to follow.”

When to go to an ER
Emergency rooms are designed to treat urgent, life-threatening conditions and are not the place for routine care or minor ailments. Emergency conditions can include (but are not limited to): chest pain; difficulty breathing; stroke; head trauma; trauma from a foreign object entering the body; open wounds; fractures; severe bleeding; loss of vision; abdominal pain; coughing or vomiting blood; and confusion or changes in mental status.

Easton Hospital has recently twice been recognized for having the shortest ER wait times and has been recognized three years in a row as the Morning Call Readers’ Choice for Best Emergency Services. Their facility includes multi-functional treatment rooms for patients with varied conditions and they have been named a Designated Chest Pain Center with PCI by the Society of Chest Pain, and a Designated Primary Stroke Center by the Joint Commission. Easton’s ER is also geriatric-friendly.

“When it comes to the short wait times at Easton Hospital’s ER, I would not call it ‘rushing’ – I would call it ‘promptness,’” says Dr. Tamaskar. “If the patient needs to be seen, you really need to be prompt and get the ball moving as quickly as possible. That is something that is very important and is known as ‘teamwork.’ If you have a good team in place, things move very fast.”

Top news

Back to all news

Top news

Back to all news