What kind of care do you need: primary care, urgent care or emergency care?

Nov 14, 2022


If you’re feeling sick or you’re injured, should you visit your primary care doctor, an urgent care clinic or the emergency room? This guide can help you decide where to go for treatment.

Sometimes we feel like a “wait and see” approach is best, but remember that urgent and emergency medical needs shouldn’t wait. Always call 9-1-1 for immediate care if you’re facing a serious medical problem or life-threatening emergency.

Primary care

A primary care provider is your family medicine physician, internal medicine doctor or pediatrician. Regular visits with your provider are important to stay on top of any needed health screenings or chronic conditions, and they are often available to see you when you’re feeling under the weather.

Go for: COVID-19 symptoms (call first, so they can take steps to protect others), a cold, flu, muscle strains, mild to moderate pain, acute illnesses (shingles, headaches, skin rashes and infections), fever, mild to moderate respiratory disorders, persistent cough

  • Availability: Business hours, typically Monday through Friday
  • Wait time: Can be days, sometimes weeks for nonurgent concerns
  • Cost: Usually a copay

Urgent care

Urgent care centers provide you with quick medical assistance when your primary care provider is unavailable. You may have an urgent care center in your neighborhood.

Go for: Ear infections, sore throat, minor cuts and burns, mild allergic reactions, fever, flu, back pain, skin rashes, sprains and strains, simple fractures, urinary tract infections, eye irritation, vomiting, diarrhea, mild dehydration, mild to moderate asthma, or care when you can’t get in to see your primary care doctor quickly

  • Availability: Extended hours, including nights and weekends
  • Wait time: Varies; typically first come, first served
  • Cost: Generally higher than your doctor but lower than an emergency room; some urgent care centers offer a convenient flat cash-pay price

Emergency room

As an essential service of your local hospital, emergency rooms are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week with physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and emergency care nurses.

Go for: Trouble breathing, fainting, heart attack or stroke, severe headache, prolonged dizziness, sudden confusion, severe bleeding or cuts that expose bone or tissue, broken bones, serious burns, coughing up blood, severe pain, severe allergic reactions, high fever, persistent vomiting or diarrhea, seizures, suicidal thoughts

  • Availability: Always open
  • Wait time: Varies; more serious conditions get seen first
  • Cost: Most expensive, but also well-equipped to deal with every ailment — and quickly; most insurance plans cover at least part of emergency room costs

Bringing the care to you – virtually

When life gets busy or you’re travelling, sometimes it can be hard to squeeze in a visit with your primary care provider. That’s where virtual visits come in! Instead of going to the clinic and sitting in a waiting room, you can see your Adventist Health provider by video using a phone, tablet or computer.