Our health care system offers a variety of care options for patients who are experiencing unexpected illnesses or injuries, including the emergency department, urgent care, and primary care. But with all these available options, it can sometimes be tricky to figure out where you should go when you need medical care.

By asking yourself a few simple questions and following your instincts, you can make the right choice. Here are a few questions you should ask yourself to help decide what type of medical care is most appropriate:

  • What type of illness or injury do I have? First look at the type and severity of the illness or injury you are facing. If it seems mild or moderate and could be managed at home — but you feel like you might want to get checked out just in case — seeking care from your primary care provider (PCP), or from an urgent care center, is usually appropriate. If your illness or injury seems very severe, you should seek emergency care. The most important thing you can do is follow your instincts.
  • How bad are my symptoms? If you are having severe symptoms, you should seek emergency care. For example, abdominal pain that is so bad that you can’t talk or stand up should warrant a visit to the emergency room.
  • Are my symptoms recurrent? Chronic conditions that cause mild symptoms that come and go usually can be treated in a primary care or urgent care setting. For example, if you have a history of headaches and are experiencing symptoms that are similar to your previous headaches, it would be appropriate to visit your primary care provider or an urgent care location. Symptoms of a cold, urinary tract infection, bronchitis, or a sinus infection that are similar to previous illnesses you’ve experienced can also be treated in the primary care or express care setting. Also, mild flare-ups of conditions such as allergies or asthma usually do not require emergency treatment.
  • Am I experiencing any “red flag” symptoms? Severe chest pain or shortness of breath — especially when you have no history of these problems — should prompt a 911 call. You should also call 911 if you are experiencing symptoms of a stroke, such as sudden numbness in your face, arms, or legs; confusion; difficulty speaking; vision problems; or difficulty with balance or coordination. In these situations, dialing 911 is a better choice than driving to the emergency department by yourself because EMS professionals can assess your situation and start treatment right away.

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Should I Visit Primary Care or Urgent Care?

Patients who are experiencing mild symptoms often wonder if it is best to visit their primary care provider or an urgent care location. Whenever possible, patients should try to see their primary care physician (PCP) first.

There are several benefits to visiting your PCP for a mild illness or injury. First, your PCP has probably seen you when you are healthy, as well as when you are sick, giving them a unique perspective on your health. Your PCP also will have access to your medical records, which can help to guide treatment decisions.

Further, some insurance plans only allow your PCP to order tests or make a specialty care referral. If your urgent care physician determines that you need additional testing or treatment, you may end up needing to visit your PCP anyway.

However, if your injury or illness needs to be treated quickly and your PCP is unable to see you, or your illness or injury occurs after hours, urgent care is a great option.

Helping You Get the Care You Need

Whether you choose to see your PCP or go to urgent care, your provider will assess your condition, check your vital signs, and do a thorough physical exam. If your provider notices any concerning symptoms, such as signs of a heart attack, sepsis, or a surgical emergency, he or she will send you to the emergency department or hospital.

Learn when it's time to go to urgent care or to the ER

Visit UPMC CareFinder. There, you can find UPMC Urgent Care centers and Emergency Departments, as well as Walk-in Primary Care and Children’s Express Care. You can even start an online visit with UPMC AnywhereCare.

About Trauma & Emergency Medicine

Emergencies can happen in the blink of an eye or the beat of the heart. And when they do, seconds matter. UPMC’s emergency and trauma care services are ready to provide world-class care, no matter how serious your emergency. All our emergency departments have a full-time staff of emergency specialists at the ready 24 hours a day. We use advanced technology to diagnose and treat your condition and coordinate with your doctor to provide the best care possible. We also have specialized trauma care, including Level 1 trauma centers at UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Mercy, a Level 1 pediatric trauma center at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, a Level 2 trauma center at UPMC Hamot, and a trauma center at UPMC Altoona.