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Should I Go to the Urgent Care Center or the Emergency Room?

April 28, 2015

Should I Go to the Urgent Care Center or the Emergency Room?

By Prateek Jindal, DO

If you or someone you’re with is experiencing some severe symptoms, you might feel the need to see a medical professional. But if you’re not hurt or sick enough to call 911, should you go to an urgent care center or the emergency room? Here are some things to think about when trying to decide the best course to take, for yourself or a loved one.

Urgent care should be considered appropriate for urgent but not emergent conditions. “Urgent” is defined as a patient needing medical care that same day, but who can wait a few hours to be seen, if necessary, without further deterioration in their health condition. “Emergent” care is generally defined as same-day care that can’t really wait without risking the patient’s condition getting worse.

If you have what you feel is an urgent condition and call your primary care doctor, and your doctor can’t see you that same day, that’s when you should come to urgent care. (For that matter, your doctor’s office will probably tell you so.) The responsible thing to do is to decide whether your condition is bad enough to warrant a visit to the emergency room. Unfortunately, too many urgent cases end up at the ERs, overwhelming them. These could have easily have been seen at urgent care. Not only does that strain the ER’s capacity, but it means your (non-life-threatening) condition will take last priority to all the patients in greater danger have been seen. You may be in for a long wait.

So—what are some common examples of urgent conditions, which need to be seen today but not necessarily at an emergency room?

• bad coughs and colds, minor asthma flare-ups
• pinkeye
• minor cuts/burns/wounds
• sprains, bruises, minor fractures/broken bones
• urinary tract infections
• non-severe abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea
• rashes
• dizziness
• migraine headache not responding to home treatment
• minor complaints after car accidents

On the other hand, there are times when you need to be seen right away or your condition could get worse in a hurry. Here are some common examples of emergent conditions:

• anything you consider life-threatening or would generally make you think about calling 911
• anything severe enough to make you believe you would need to stay in the hospital beyond the ER visit
• possible stroke
• possible heart attack
• severed limbs
• meningitis
• severe symptoms (difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, etc.)

Of course, if your condition is so dangerous that you can’t even get yourself to an emergency room, you should immediately call 911. You should be especially vigilant for symptoms of heart attack or stroke. There are many different kinds of heart attack symptoms. The “classic” symptom is feeling pain or pressure in the left side of the chest, often with exertion or activity (walking, exercise, yard work, moving furniture/boxes, sex, etc). It is often accompanied by shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. People often get very sweaty and clammy and may feel dizzy or faint. They may also feel pain in the left side of their neck or jaw and may get discomfort, numbness, or tingling going into their left shoulder or arm. They may get nauseous or throw up as well. If you are having all the “classic” symptoms, you should probably go directly to the emergency room or call 911, as time is of the essence in these situations. Going to your local urgent care may cause a delay in your treatment, as they will likely have to call an ambulance to take you to the emergency room, which is more properly equipped to treat heart attacks.

While these are the “classic” symptoms, a large number of patients only have one or some of these symptoms. Some also have symptoms that are not typical, such as severe heartburn or indigestion in the top of their stomach or behind their breastbone instead of the left-sided chest pain. Such symptoms, if strong and developing, also warrant a physician evaluation. If they are not severe, they may be evaluated at a local urgent care such as Riverside Medical Clinic, where an EKG can be performed and in combination with your history and risk factors, the right decision can be made regarding sending you to the hospital or having you follow up with your primary care doctor or a cardiologist.

Stroke symptoms include sudden weakness of an arm or leg; less commonly, sudden paralysis of one side of your body. You may also feel numbness or tingling of one side of your body. Your speech may become slurred or incomprehensible. People may also notice a droop on one side of your face as you try to speak or smile. Sudden blurring or loss of vision may also occur. These symptoms may also be accompanied by a worsening headache and/or dizziness. If you are having such sudden symptoms, you absolutely need to call 911 for immediate attention. Again, as with heart attacks, time is of the essence in treating stroke patients. If you don’t get immediate emergency care, you could have permanent brain damage, or die. Urgent care centers are not generally equipped to treat strokes and again, going to urgent care will only delay appropriate emergency treatment while they wait for an ambulance to take you to the ER.

In fact, while all emergency departments can begin treatment for stabilizing heart attack and stroke patients, certain hospitals have higher capabilities of providing care and are designated as stroke or cardiac receiving centers. It may be worthwhile for you to know which of your local hospitals have such designations. In general, it’s important to educate yourself about what urgent care centers are in your area, as they vary widely in their diagnostic and treatment capabilities. Some only treat minor coughs, colds, and urinary tract infections, with no further abilities. Others can perform basic x-rays. Others, like Riverside Medical Clinic’s urgent care center, can perform ultrasound and CT examinations, if needed.

The ability to draw blood for testing and give patients intravenous fluids and medications in the urgent care setting will also vary, depending on the facility and how it’s equipped and staffed. Therefore, it’s very important for you to know what kind of services your local urgent care center can provide before seeking care there. If your condition is beyond the capability of that particular urgent care, you’ll either be referred to another urgent care center or transported by ambulance to the emergency room. That could cause a delay in your treatment and duplicate your costs. A little research ahead of time could make all the difference in your treatment and costs, and could even save your life.

Dr. Prateek Jindal is an urgent care physician at Riverside Medical Clinic. A graduate of The Johns Hopkins University, he attended the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, and completed his residency at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton.

Riverside Medical Clinic is the largest private provider of ambulatory care in the Inland Empire. If you’d like to find a general physician or a specialist, call the clinic’s Customer Relations department at (951) 782-3602 or go to for an online physician directory by location and specialty.

Riverside Medical Clinic