Should you go to the doctor, walk-in clinic, urgent care or ER?

When you need healthcare, where you go depends on the type of care you need. In a true emergency, you should call 911 or go to the emergency room. But, keep in mind that the emergency room is for emergencies. If you end up there for a minor issue, you’re going to have to wait until people with critical conditions are treated first.

When you’re experiencing symptoms that are not life-threatening, it’s best to compare care options based on quality, cost and convenience. Various care options are listed below based on the type of care you may be seeking and examples of the types of minor illnesses and injuries that can be treated in each care setting.

Here is your at-a-glance guide to navigating healthcare.

Hospital emergency room: When you need care immediately.

Sometimes, your symptoms require immediate attention and/or hospitalization. If you think you or a loved one may have had a heart attack or stroke, or suffered a life-threatening injury, call 911.

A hospital emergency room can provide evaluation and treatment for serious, life-threatening or disabling conditions, including:

  • Chest pain
  • Sudden loss of balance, vision change, facial droop, arm or leg weakness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe abdominal pain, coughing or vomiting blood
  • Deep cuts or wounds
  • Severe burns
  • Severe head injuries
  • Poisoning, overdoses and suicidal behavior

Related: ER wait times: Behind the scenes in an ER

Your primary care doctor: You want care from someone who knows your health history.

This would be your doctor’s office. Your primary care physician should be your first choice for care when it’s not an emergency. He or she will know your health history and can treat minor illnesses such as allergies, back pain, bladder infections, colds, earaches, sore throat, sprains and more.

If further care is needed, your doctor will help connect you with the right kind of specialized or emergency care.

Walk-in clinic: You want care quickly and conveniently.

Walk-in clinics are a great care option when you want or need care quickly, as most walk-in clinics offer same-day appointments. You will likely be treated by a physician assistant or nurse practitioner for many of the same symptoms as you would at your primary care doctor’s office.

A walk-in clinic can be a good option if you are traveling or otherwise unable to see your primary care doctor.

Urgent care center: You need care now, but your doctor is not available.

A convenient option during off-hours, urgent care centers employ a variety of internal medicine physicians, family practice physicians, pediatricians and ER doctors. These facilities can come in handy when you feel that your symptoms cannot wait but don’t require care in an emergency room.

Urgent care centers are typically equipped with the ability to conduct X-rays and handle stitches, which many doctor’s offices and walk-in clinics are unable to do.

E-visit or video visit: You don’t feel well but can’t leave your home or office.

When you can’t physically get to a doctor’s office, e-visits or video visits offer care via your mobile device or computer. If an option with your healthcare provider and insurance, e-visits allow you to message a provider, fill out a brief questionnaire and receive a diagnosis back, usually within one hour. Through a video visit, you can chat with a provider face-to-face using your mobile device.

Both e-visits and video visits feature the ability to have a prescription sent to your pharmacy of choice. Use e-visits or video visits to treat minor conditions like allergies, colds, flu, constipation, pink eye, urinary tract infections and skin conditions. Check with your insurance provider for eligibility.

Need care? Find a doctor near you.

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Should you go to the doctor, walk-in clinic, urgent care or ER?