Expert Health Articles

When to go to a Primary Care Office vs Urgent Care Center vs Emergency Department

Jessica Gonzalez, RN

Physicians Plus

Health care needs occur at all hours of the day and night. This article is meant to provide helpful information that can be used when determining if you should schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or need more immediate care by choosing a nearby urgent care or hospital emergency department. 

Primary Care Offices: Patients are provided with ongoing medical needs, the ability for continuation of care and treatment options. Patients who seek care at their doctor’s office will need to call and schedule an appointment based on available openings.

These services include, but are not limited to:   

  • Diagnosis and treatment of long-term medical conditions
    • For example: high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, mental health, wellness or routine yearly visits
    • Ongoing medication refills or adjustments to medication strengths and amounts
  • Further medical examinations
    • Lab work and diagnostic radiology
  • Referral to specialty office when needed

Urgent Care: Patients are provided with immediate care that needs to be addressed when a primary care physician is unavailable. An urgent care gives patients the ability to be seen by a medical provider without having a scheduled appointment. Patients who choose to be seen at an urgent care are seen on a first come, first serve basis. 

These services include but are not limited to:

  • Minor illnesses:
    • Sinusitis, bronchitis, fever, sore throat, colds, headaches or earaches
    • Urinary tract infections or other urinary issues
  • Localized allergic reactions:
    •  Bee stings, rashes or insect bites
  • Minor injuries:
    • Simple lacerations, minor burns, sprains, strains or fractures
  • Physicals:
    • Sports physicals and minor work permits

Emergency Room: Patients are provided with medical care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Emergency rooms are designed to treat more critical patients or patients who are in need of medical treatment when urgent care or their primary care office is closed. Patients who are treated at the emergency department are seen not only on a first come first serve basis, but also according to the severity of illness.

Emergency room services include but are not limited to:

  • Severe injuries:
    • Car accidents, fractures, severe burns or lacerations, severe trauma that includes the head or several areas of the body
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Stroke-like symptoms
    • Weakness of one side of the body or extremity, slurred speech or blurred vision
  • Unconsciousness
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Severe or uncontrollable bleeding
  • Severe nausea, vomiting or diarrhea leading to dehydration
  • Any serious or life-threatening medical condition