Where to Get Care You Need: Differences Between Primary Care, Urgent Care, and Emergency Room

Depending on your specific illness or injury, seeking the right type of care in the right location may save you time and money

BOSTON – 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 physician?

“Hospitals today are facing extraordinary challenges,” said Marsha Maurer, DNP, RN, senior vice president of Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer at BIDMC. “While patients may experience longer wait times, our hard-working providers and staff continue to deliver safe, high-quality care in several different settings. It is important to know the options available to you so you can decide which one is best for your specific needs.”

When to contact your primary care physician

Primary care physicians 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. 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.

“Primary care providers are a valuable resource for patients in helping them to effectively manage their care and prevent emergent conditions,” said Eileen Reynolds, MD, chief of General Internal Medicine at BIDMC. “Connecting with your primary care physician is a great place to start if your symptoms do not require absolute immediate attention.”

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 Deaconess Medical Center primary care physician, please visit the BIDMC Find a Doctor website.

When to go to an 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. Visiting an urgent care center can save you time and money. Some even offer the ability to reserve a place in line, online, so patients can wait from the comfort of their own homes.

“Urgent care is an important option to deliver near immediate care for many non-emergent injuries and illnesses,” said Sam Skura, chief operating officer at BIDMC. “Urgent care centers often have shorter wait times compared to emergency departments for non-emergent care and some even offer the option to book an appointment ahead of time.”

Examples of care available through urgent care:

  • Sprains
  • 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)

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