In a medical emergency, you want the best, fastest care possible. When an accident or injury arises, many immediately think of an emergency department as the place to go. In fact, there are many instances when seeing your primary care provider or going to an urgent care center may be faster and more appropriate than a trip to a hospital emergency department.

When to go to an emergency department

A medical emergency is an injury or illness that requires immediate medical attention. Such emergencies include life-threatening instances. Call 9-1-1 to receive immediate treatment and transport for any of the following conditions:

  • stroke (signs include sudden dizziness, numbness or paralysis, difficulty seeing or speaking, loss of consciousness)
  • heart attack (signs include chest pain with sensation or pain radiating into jaw, teeth, shoulder or back; or palpitations with dizziness; or shortness of breath, sweating and/or nausea or vomiting)
  • severe abdominal pain
  • seizure

In addition to those above, there are other medical emergencies that require treatment in an emergency department. Go to an emergency department or call 9-1-1 for any of the following: 

  • asthma attack (severe)
  • broken bones
  • burns, electrical shock
  • coughing or vomiting blood
  • difficulty breathing
  • poison ingestion
  • severe diarrhea, dehydration
  • shock
  • trauma, serious head injury
  • uncontrollable bleeding, amputation
  • vaginal bleeding during pregnancy

Why the emergency department is not always the right place

Emergency departments provide care to the most seriously ill and injured in our community, and the most serious cases receive treatment first. Patients who arrive at an emergency department with less serious conditions may face long wait times, especially during an outbreak of conditions such as flu, COVID, or RSV

Instead of waiting in an emergency department, keep in mind there are other options for quicker access to non-emergency care. If you experience a condition that is not a true medical emergency, consider calling your primary care provider for a same day visit or go to a walk-in or urgent care center such as Lifespan Urgent Care.

When to go to an urgent care center

Urgent care centers are an excellent option for conditions that are not life-threatening but require medical treatment. Urgent care centers do not provide care for serious injuries or illnesses, such as severe lacerations, heart attacks, strokes, or other life-threatening conditions. 

An urgent care center is a great option for treatment if you experience any of the following: 

  • allergies
  • asthma attack (mild or moderate)
  • bladder infections
  • burns (minor)
  • earaches, eye or skin infections
  • insect bites, rashes
  • minor cuts or wounds that require stitches
  • minor head injuries
  • nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • sprains, strains, or deep bruises
  • upper respiratory infections, such as coughs, congestion, fever, flu symptoms, sinus problems, sore throat, bronchitis

When to see your primary care provider

Your primary care provider is responsible for coordinating all your care and has a clear picture of your overall health and medical history. Unless it is a life-threatening emergency, consider calling your primary care provider first. Many physicians offer sick/same-day visits for unforeseen conditions. Your primary care provider can treat any of the following:

  • allergies
  • asthma attack (mild, moderate)
  • bladder infections
  • burns (minor)
  • upper respiratory infections – coughs, congestion, fever or flu symptoms, sinus problems, sore throat, bronchitis
  • earaches, eye or skin infections
  • adult flu shots
  • insect bites, rashes
  • migraines
  • minor head injuries
  • nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • pregnancy tests
  • sprains, strains, deep bruises
  • sports physicals
  • regular physical exams, prescription refills, vaccinations, screenings
  • management of chronic conditions such as diabetes
  • Sometimes, however, your primary provider may not be able to see you when needed or may not have access to necessary X-rays or blood tests. In such cases, consider an urgent care center. 

You can learn more about “right place, right care” on the Rhode Island Department of Health website.

Lifespan Blog Team

The Lifespan Blog Team is working to provide you with timely and pertinent information that will help keep you and your family happy and healthy.