Types of Medical Care

You twist your ankle while jogging; it’s swollen, and you can’t put weight on it. Should you have someone drive you to the emergency room — or head to an urgent care center? Or should you just call your regular doctor?

These days, there are many choices for medical care. Throw in virtual visits, and the options can seem overwhelming.

Here’s a breakdown of the different types of medical care — and how to choose which one is right for you.

Primary Care

Your primary care provider (PCP) is the health care professional you see most often, usually by appointment. The PCP could be a doctor, physician assistant, or a nurse practitioner. They may be a family doctor, an internist, or geriatrician.

Ideally, you’ll have a long-standing relationship with your PCP, and they will get to know your health care needs over the years. Your PCP will be your main health care provider for common medical problems that aren’t emergencies. Your PCP may refer you to specialists for further treatment.

Your PCP can provide:

  • General medical advice.
  • Routine annual checkups.
  • Immunizations.
  • Management of chronic conditions (diabetes, heart disease, respiratory problems).
  • Screening tests for common illnesses and health problems.
  • Referrals to specialists.
  • Mental health screening.

Your PCP can treat:

  • Coughs and colds.
  • Flu.
  • Sore throat.
  • Ear infections.
  • Urinary tract infections.
  • Minor aches and pains.
  • Minor injuries.
  • Allergies.

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Urgent Care

An urgent care center is sometimes called a walk-in clinic. You don’t need an appointment for a health care professional to see you. At some urgent care centers, though, you’ll have the option to schedule an appointment online.

Urgent care centers are typically open during the day, on weekends, and in the evenings. But unlike ERs, they aren’t open 24 hours.

Urgent care is a great option when your regular doctor isn’t available, or you can’t wait for an appointment. It’s also helpful if you’re traveling and not near your regular doctor’s office.

Many urgent care centers offer sports physicals for teens. Urgent care is also a good choice if you need a basic physical for work or to get a driver’s license.

A visit to an urgent care center is typically less costly than a visit to the emergency room If you have a minor medical issue, the wait at urgent care is often shorter than the wait at the emergency department.

Urgent care is not the right choice if you have:

  • Sudden onset chest pain.
  • Profuse bleeding.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Intense abdominal pain.
  • Signs of a stroke.
  • Serious burns.

Urgent care centers are ideal for treatment of minor illnesses and injuries, such as:

  • Coughs and colds.
  • Sore throat.
  • Flu and flu-like symptoms, including fever.
  • Dehydration.
  • Ear infections.
  • Urinary tract infections.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Skin rashes.
  • Infections.
  • Allergies.
  • Sprains and strains.
  • Minor burns.
  • Minor fractures (such as broken bones in hands or feet).
  • Eye irritation and redness.

Emergency Care

An emergency department is a hospital facility staffed with medical professionals 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They provide unscheduled services to people who need urgent medical care.

Emergency care may require rapid treatments, including surgery, that can only happen in a hospital, not an urgent care center. Emergency room doctors:

  • Can order laboratory and imaging tests (CT scans, MRIs).
  • Have access to specialists like cardiologists, gastroenterologists, and surgeons.
  • Can admit you to the hospital.

The care in the emergency department often costs more than in an urgent care center. But there are many times when you may need emergency care.

If you or a loved one needs emergency treatment, you can call 911 or have someone drive you to the emergency room. In case of a heart attack or stroke, paramedics can begin delivering life-saving treatment in the ambulance.

You should go to the emergency room if you experience:

  • Chest pain or other heart attack symptoms.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Weakness or numbness on one side of your body, confusion, or other stroke symptoms.
  • Sudden or severe headache or loss of vision.
  • Fainting.
  • Serious burns.
  • Head or eye injury.
  • Concussion or confusion from a blow to the head.
  • Broken bones.
  • Dislocated joints.
  • High fever (103 degrees or higher in adults).
  • Seizures.
  • Severe cuts that look like they might need stitches.
  • Facial cuts.
  • Uncontrolled bleeding.
  • Vaginal bleeding with pregnancy.
  • Severe cold or flu symptoms.
  • Severe asthma attack.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Domestic violence.
  • Rape.
  • Feelings of suicide or wanting to harm yourself.

Telemedicine Services

Telemedicine, or telehealth, is a new addition to the range of choices for medical care. You can connect over the phone or via video chat. A video chat is when you connect with a health care professional via computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Telehealth visits are available with a wide range of health care providers. They include specialists in:

  • Brain care.
  • Children’s health.·
  • Chronic pain.
  • Critical care.
  • Dermatology.
  • Digestive health.
  • Endocrine and hormone-related diseases.
  • Heart health.
  • Infectious diseases.
  • Internal medicine.
  • Lung and breathing problems.
  • Mental health.
  • Primary care.
  • Rheumatic diseases.
  • Sleep medicine.
  • Stroke care.
  • Women’s health.

You may meet virtually with your PCP, mental health professionals, or a variety of specialists. Health care providers can send you test results and appointment reminders through email and secure messaging.

You should treat a telehealth visit just like a regular doctor’s visit. That is, write down a list of your current symptoms and medications. Take your temperature, weight, and blood pressure if possible, and relay that information to the health care professional.

Telehealth options are ideal if you:

  • Live far away from your health care provider.
  • Have difficulty traveling for an in-person appointment.
  • Are responsible for elderly family members or small children and can’t bring them with you to the doctor’s office.
  • Feel too sick to leave home.
  • Might be contagious and need to stay a safe distance away from others.
  • Need a brief follow-up visit.

Here are some tips to make your telehealth visit more productive.

No matter what type of health care visit you choose, you should always follow up with your PCP. They can update your medical history and answer any questions.

U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Preparing for a virtual visit, Link

U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, What is telehealth? Link

CDC, Urgent Care Center and Retail Health Clinic Utilization Among Adults: United States, 2019, Link

CDC, Emergency Department, Link

National Library of Medicine, Types of health care providers, Link

National Library of Medicine, Choosing a primary care provider, Link

National Library of Medicine, Why Do People Choose Emergency and Urgent Care Services? Link

National Library of Medicine, Walk-in clinics versus physician offices and emergency rooms for urgent care and chronic disease management, Link

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.