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Published on December 17, 2021

Tips for Choosing the Right Care at the Right Place

Depending on your illness or injury, you can save time and money going to urgent care or your primary care doctor

Cambridge, Mass. – 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?

If you are experiencing potentially life-threatening symptoms, go to the emergency room or call 911, recommends Christopher Fischer, MD, chair of the department of emergency medicine at Mount Auburn Hospital. “Connecting with your primary care physician or going to and urgent care center may be a better option for non-urgent or non- life-threatening symptoms.”

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.

“Your primary care doctor knows you and your health history. They can help manage your chronic disease and are a valuable resource,” said Carey Thomson, MD, chair of medicine at Mount Auburn Hospital. “Additionally, many offer telehealth. You can be seen by a doctor in the comfort of your own home.”

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 Lahey Health primary care physician near you, please visit the BILH Find a Doctor website.

When to go to the 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. Additionally, visiting an urgent care center can save you time and money.

“Urgent care is a good option if you are not having an emergency,” said Ed Huang, interim president of Mount Auburn Hospital. Right now, emergency rooms are packed and the wait time can be a few hours. You won’t wait as long at an urgent care center.”

Examples of care available through urgent care:

  • Sprains
  • Minor 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)

Some urgent care centers even offer the ability to reserve a place in line, online, so patients can wait from the comfort of their own homes. For more information and a list of other Beth Israel Lahey Health-affiliated urgent care centers, please visit the BILH Urgent Care website and choose a location that is convenient for you.

When to go to the emergency department at the hospital

For managing chronic illnesses or cold and flu symptoms, start with a call to your primary care physician’s office. For that sprained or broken ankle, rash, and other mild-to-moderate symptoms, going to urgent care can save you time and money. Patients needing more complex emergency care should call 911 or seek care at the closest the emergency department.

“You shouldn’t delay care if you are worried about wait times,” said Huang. “But know your options. If you’re having a life-threatening emergency, go to the emergency room or call 911. For non-life-threatening symptoms, an urgent care center is a better option. And of course your primary care physician knows you best and can help you manage chronic conditions before they become emergencies.”

Examples of care available through the emergency department:

  • Chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • Serious burns, cuts, or lacerations
  • Broken bones or dislocated joints
  • Fainting, changes in mental state, or slurred speech
  • Head or eye injuries
  • Weakness and/or numbness in one side
  • You should also visit the emergency department if another provider instructs you to do so, or if it’s your only option at the current time and location.
About Mount Auburn Hospital

Mount Auburn Hospital was founded in 1886. A teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, its mission is to provide clinically excellent care with compassion and to teach students of medicine and the health professions.

Mount Auburn Hospital is a part of Beth Israel Lahey Health, a health care system that brings together academic medical centers and teaching hospitals, community and specialty hospitals, more than 4,800 physicians and 36,000 employees in a shared mission to expand access to great care and advance the science and practice of medicine through groundbreaking research and education.

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Kristina Murray
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