Tips for Choosing Between Primary Care, Urgent Care, and the Emergency Room

September 15, 2023

Depending on Your Specific Illness or Injury, Seeking the Right Type of Care in the Right Location May Save You Time and Money

You may have heard that hospitals are busier than ever. You've just slipped in your driveway and think you may have sprained or broken your ankle. You need to see a doctor. But where? Should you go to the nearest emergency room, or to urgent care? Should you call your primary care provider?

“Certainly for things that are not life threatening, your primary care provider or local urgent care can be a good option,” recommends Robert Fields, MD, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Beth Israel Lahey Health. “Having a team that knows you and your family can be helpful in order to monitor those symptoms over time and to put the symptoms in context with other things that may be going on in your life. For life threatening symptoms, clearly it is best to get care in emergency department where the staff and equipment necessary to care for you is readily available.”

When to Contact Your Primary Care Provider

Primary care providers know their patients and their patients' medical history best. They can diagnose and treat non-urgent conditions such as minor infections, headaches, muscle pains, minor scrapes and bruises.

"Primary care providers also help manage a patient's chronic disease and are a valuable resource for patients in helping them to effectively manage their care," said Fields. "For some conditions, telehealth may also be an option, allowing the patient to have an appointment with their provider in the comfort of their own home."

Examples of care available through primary care:

  • Cold, flu and sore throat
  • Ear, sinus or urinary tract infection
  • Headaches and muscle pains
  • Stomach pains, nausea, diarrhea, or constipation
  • Minor scrapes or bruises
  • Managing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure

To find a Beth Israel Lahey Health primary care provider near you, please visit our Find a Provider page.

When to Go to the Urgent Care Center

For non-emergent injuries that are beyond the scope of primary care but don't rise to the level of emergency care, urgent care centers are also an option. Urgent care centers can perform a multitude of tests – with some locations offering X-rays and lab services, and some centers offering IV fluids for dehydration or IV antibiotics for an infection. Additionally, visiting an urgent care center can save you time and money.

"Urgent care is an important option to deliver near immediate care for many non-emergent injuries and illnesses," said Fields. "Right now, the average wait time in the emergency department can be a number of hours, compared to typically a shorter wait at an urgent care center."

Examples of care available through urgent care:

  • Sprains
  • Minor animal bites or stings
  • Minor cuts or burns
  • Dehydration
  • Pink eye
  • Rashes or other skin issues
  • Primary care concerns (if unable to see primary care provider)

Some urgent care centers even offer the ability to reserve a place in line, online, so patients can wait from the comfort of their own homes. For more information and a list of Beth Israel Lahey Health-affiliated urgent care centers, please visit our Urgent Care page to discover a location that is convenient for you.

When to Go to the Emergency Department at the Hospital

For managing chronic illnesses or cold and flu symptoms, start with a call to your primary care provider's office. For that sprained or broken ankle, rash, and other mild-to-moderate symptoms, going to urgent care can save you time and money. Patients needing more complex emergency care should call 911 or seek care at the closest the emergency department.

"We want patients to know how important it is to seek the care they need – please do not delay care based on concerns about wait time," said Fields. "Knowing your options is important to evaluate where you should get the care you need safely and effectively. Anyone experiencing potentially life-threatening symptoms should go to the emergency room or call 911. 

Examples of care available through the emergency department:

  • Chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • Serious burns, cuts, or lacerations
  • Broken bones or dislocated joints
  • Fainting, changes in mental state, or slurred speech
  • Head or eye injuries
  • Weakness and/or numbness in one side

You should also visit the emergency department if another provider instructs you to do so, or if it's your only option at the current time and location.

About Beth Israel Lahey Health

Beth Israel Lahey Health is a health care system that brings together academic medical centers and teaching hospitals, community and specialty hospitals, more than 4,700 physicians and 39,000 employees in a shared mission to expand access to great care and advance the science and practice of medicine through groundbreaking research and education.