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Primary care, urgent care or emergency room – where should you go?

Too often we find ourselves trying to decide if we should visit an urgent care facility or an Emergency Department.

If acute cold symptoms, stomach pain or back ache do not improve in a day or two, consider seeking medical help. The decision when and where to get help should be done with regard to your general health and underlying chronic medical conditions.

When you’re not feeling well and unsure where to go, use this guide to navigate to the right place.

When to see your doctor
For an acute condition such as the flu, gastrointestinal illness, or a minor injury, you should first attempt to schedule an appointment with your primary physician. Even if you can’t be seen by your physician, if seen by another provider in the practice, he or she will have access to your records. Many practices even reserve same-day visit appointments for this purpose, on a first-come-first-served basis.

When to seek urgent care
Urgent care centers fill an important niche between primary care and emergent care (ER). If you are unable to schedule with your own physician, you are traveling, or it’s after hours, urgent care is a good alternative.

Many centers are equipped with point-of-care diagnostics such as x-ray, ultrasound and laboratories for accurate diagnosis of common acute injuries and illnesses.

Conditions and symptoms commonly treated by urgent care settings include:

Urgent care is just that—urgent. If you feel you need to be seen, if possible call ahead, but most will see you without an appointment.

When to visit the ER
The ER should be reserved for serious acute illness or injuries, or exacerbations of serious chronic medical problems.

Red flag symptoms that should be directed to ERs include:

  • Severe chest pain or shortness of breath
  • Stroke signs (facial droop, slurring of words, weakness on one side of the body)
  • Severe injury or bleeding
  • Sudden changes in mental status (especially in the elderly)
  • Concerns of drug/alcohol overdose
  • Suicide intent

Also, if you have been advised to go to the ER by a medical professional or first responder, you should.

Following an urgent care or ER visit
It’s vital to follow up with your primary physician after a visit to urgent care or the ER. This will ensure continuity of care after an illness or injury. Your doctor may not be aware of the event or have access to the records of the event if the visit occurred outside of your provider’s health system. Treatment of acute illness or injury, especially if you were prescribed medication, could impact the management of other medical conditions. Bring all paperwork and medications you were given to your primary care follow-up visit. This will allow your physician to check for drug interactions, monitor your recovery progress, and arrange any necessary follow-up services, such as physical therapy.

Importance of having a doctor
Regardless of age or health status, it is important to have a primary care physician. If you’re under 18, primary care can be provided by a pediatrician or family physician. After age 18, you should establish with a general internist or family physician. If you’re healthy, see your doctor yearly for general health maintenance. If you have one or more chronic medical conditions, your physician will discuss a follow-up schedule to help optimize your care.

Primary care physicians are charged with the “big picture,” and therefore take a more comprehensive approach to their patients’ care. We look at our patients in the context of overall well-being, not just disease. Primary physicians maintain records of your personal health history, family history, medications, allergies and health maintenance. They are trained and experienced in not only the management of chronic and acute illness but also in the prevention of disease through patient education and promotion of healthy lifestyles. Primary care physicians are also the gatekeepers for coordinating care with other specialists and can help patients with multiple serious medical conditions navigate an increasingly complex health care system.

Now you know which type of location to pick, now find the one nearest you.
We’re bringing expert healthcare closer to home. Augusta University Care Centers are right in your community with teams of skilled primary care and specialty care doctors – coming to you. Convenience that empowers good health – we’re here for you and your family. Make an appointment at our Family Medicine clinic or at one of our care centers today, visit augustahealth.org, or call 706-721-2273 (CARE).
In a medical emergency, call 911 (or your local emergency number) or go to the nearest emergency room.

About the author

Jacqueline DuBose, MD

Jacqueline DuBose, MD

Dr. Jacqueline DuBose is an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. Dr. DuBose earned her undergraduate degree at Arkansas State University. She also earned her medical degree and completed her residency at the Medical College of Georgia. Dr. DuBose is a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians (FAAFP).

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