Urgent Care or the Emergency Room?

Which is most appropriate and when? The nurses at Ochsner On Call can help 24/7.  

by Ann Kay Logarbo, MD, FAAP, Medical Director, Ochsner Health Plan

Illness and injury always appear when you least expect them – weekends, after office hours and in the middle of the night. With more healthcare options than ever, it can be challenging to determine the best course of action when you or a loved one is sick or injured.

Of course, if you’re sick, your primary care physician should be your first choice for care for acute and chronic illnesses because he/she is familiar with your medical history. Primary care providers offer comprehensive and continuous care. During office hours, you should call your primary care provider first for advice.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t get sick during regular office hours, and thankfully, it’s usually not an emergency. That’s when an urgent care center might be your best option. And, should the need arise, Ochsner Health Plan members have the unique benefit of being able to access any urgent care or emergency room anywhere in the world for a low co-pay.

In addition, if you are an Ochsner Health Plan member and get sick or injured, you have access to a toll-free hotline for medical guidance anytime necessary. Ochsner On Call is a FREE 24/7 nurse advice line that puts you in touch with an expert anytime – even holidays. Whether you have a health concern or need advice on care options, simply call 1-800-231-5257.

When is it Appropriate to Contact Ochsner On Call?

  • Deciding where to go for non-life-threatening issues
  • Urgent after-hours questions following an appointment or procedure
  • Determining if an issue is serious enough to go to the ER

For non-life-threatening issues, the specially trained registered nurses at Ochsner On Call will help you determine the best options for where to seek care. They can also provide health education and advisory services.

If you are experiencing a medical emergency, visit your local Emergency Room or dial 9-1-1.

Remember, never drive yourself if you are having severe chest pain or severe bleeding, if you feel like you might faint or if your vision is impaired. When in doubt, PLEASE CALL 911 — what matters most is that you get to the emergency room quickly and safely.

For certain medical emergencies such as a heart attack, stroke or pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lung), calling 911 for an ambulance is always the right decision. This is because paramedics often can begin delivering life-saving treatment on the way to the hospital.

When to go to the Emergency Room:

There are several medical conditions that are considered emergencies because they can require rapid or advanced treatments (such as surgery) that are only available in a hospital setting.

A visit to the emergency room is warranted for potentially life-threatening illnesses and injuries. Wait times for non-life-threatening conditions could exceed an hour or more in the emergency room. Go to your nearest emergency room for these conditions:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath or a severe asthma attack
  • Heart palpitations
  • Loss of consciousness or fainting
  • Uncontrollable bleeding
  • Broken bone (with deformity or open wound)
  • Seizures
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Severe headache
  • Weakness, slurred speech, or confusion
  • Major head injuries
  • Severe burns
  • Severe pain
  • Suicidal or homicidal thoughts
  • Loss of eyesight

When to go to an Urgent Care Center:

Remember, urgent care is not emergency care. However, urgent care centers, like those run by Ochsner Health, are available in practically every neighborhood in any town all over the country. Urgent care centers help fill a vital gap when you become sick or injured, your primary care physician is not available, and you can’t wait for an appointment. They are equipped to handle most non-emergency situations, 7-days-per week and with extended service hours.

Many people use the ER as a place to receive after-hours care for minor illnesses or injuries without realizing they have another option; urgent care centers are same-day clinics that can handle a variety of medical problems that need to be treated right away but are not considered true emergencies.

Outside of regular office hours or extended hours, the same acute, non-life-threatening illnesses or injuries that you may normally go to your primary care provider or an also be treated at an urgent care facility. An urgent care facility can give you immediate medical attention for common illnesses usually without an appointment or long wait.

If you are unable to see your primary care physician or need immediate attention, you can visit an urgent care for:

  • Cold, cough, flu, sinus problems, fever
  • Sore throat and strep throat
  • Ear pain or infection
  • Eye irritation or pink eye
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Sutures for lacerations and injuries requiring casting
  • Abscess
  • Insect and animal bites
  • Rashes and minor burns
  • Sprains, strains and possible closed fractures (no open wound)
  • Minor head injury
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Mild abdominal pain
  • Mild asthma attack
  • Migraine or mild headache
  • Allergic reactions or allergies

If your symptoms come on gradually or you already know the diagnosis — for example, you have repeat urinary tract infections — it’s worth calling your primary care doctor’s office to see if you can get a same-day appointment. After all, your primary care doctor knows your health history, including what treatments have worked best in the past and whether you have other medical conditions that need to be taken into consideration.

However, while urgent care clinics are not a substitute for your primary care physician, they are a great resource when you need care but can’t get in with your doctor.

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What to bring to an urgent center or ER:

Regardless which facility best fits your needs, remember to bring a list of ALL current medications so the healthcare provider can assure there will be no interaction if an additional medication is needed. Try to provide as detailed a history of your symptoms as possible. Remember to ask the urgent care center or emergency room to send a copy of your visit to your primary care physician.

The choice of when to visit a primary care physician, an urgent care center, an emergency room or to dial 911 is important to everyone.

Sadly, over-use of the emergency room by those who could be treated effectively by their primary care physicians or in an urgent care setting has become a huge challenge for healthcare systems nationwide — putting tremendous strain on emergency services, healthcare professionals and those patients that genuinely need immediate emergency care.

While the answer is not always simple, knowing the difference between urgent care and emergency care and where to seek treatment could save your life in a medical emergency. If your sudden illness or injury occurs after hours, on a weekend or holiday and you’re not sure whether to call 911, go to an emergency room, or drive to a near-by urgent care center, contact a nurse hotline like Ochsner On Call1-800-231-5257.

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