It has come to my attention that many of you don't know when to use an urgent care center, your primary doctor or an emergency room. As a veteran paramedic and urgent care worker I have some insight into the differences and the illnesses and injuries which are appropriate for each one.
A primary care physician is the doctor you go to for your primary health needs. This doctor should get to know you on a personal basis. They will maintain a chart of your illnesses, height and weight and the prescription medicines you are taking. Any long term illnesses which you may be afflicted with will be treated by your primary care physician. Illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, lung diseases, or any other disease which you may be hospitalized for are the primary doctor's domain. From time to time your primary doctor may call in a specialist to treat you. This specialist will treat a specific injury or illness. You will then return to your primary care physician for any follow up care.
An emergency room is where you go for acute illnesses or injury. This means anything that suddenly occurs such as chest pain or difficulty breathing. These are life threatening and need to be treated right away without waiting for an appointment. In other cases such as diabetes, you may be getting treatment from your primary care physician but an acute onset of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or a diabetic coma should be treated first, by an ambulance crew, and then by an emergency room physician.
Sudden serious injuries such as those sustained in a motor vehicle accident may be treated in an emergency room. This is a great place to find a list of injuries and illnesses treated in an emergency room.
Urgent Care centers are meant to satisfy the middle ground, the gray area between emergency room and primary care physician. Things like a sore throat or broken finger are examples of illnesses and injuries which require quick service but are not life threatening. A doctor's office may require several days or a week to make an appointment. An emergency room may be able to treat these ailments but would cost much more than is necessary plus the wait may be hours depending on other patient's severity. The urgent care is available to see patients now. A short wait is typical and the cost is much less. Many of the major insurance companies cover urgent care services.
There are typically doctors or nurse practitioners on duty at the urgent care who will treat your illness or injury. They can run labs and take x-rays. The urgent care keeps records of your visit but unlike the primary care physician they will not personally follow your disease processes. A primary care physician is best for long term care.