With so many types of care to choose from these days, it’s often not a matter of getting care – it’s a question of which type of care to get.
Your first choice for receiving non-emergency care should almost always be your primary care provider (PCP). Your PCP arguably knows you best out of anyone on your health care team and will help you to manage your care across your lifespan. He or she is able to treat both acute and chronic health issues – everything from upper respiratory infections and abdominal pain to preventive wellness and heart disease. Although many conditions can be treated by your PCP, if needed, he or she can connect you with a specialist for further care.
When selecting a PCP, it’s a good idea to find out what types of services he or she offers and how to access those services when dealing with an immediate concern. For example, some PCP’s offer an after-hours nurse line that allows you to speak directly with a nurse or physician to discuss your symptoms and find the right level of care. Some offices also offer virtual urgent care, which allows you to interact with a physician to get advice, treatment and a prescription for simple conditions. These visits allow you to get the care you need 24/7, 365 days a year.
Of course, one of the exceptions to seeing a PCP first is if you’re experiencing an emergency medical condition and can’t wait to receive care. These situations – such as heart attack, stroke, drug overdose, etc. – should be treated in the emergency room. If there is any question that you may be suffering from an immediate potentially life-threatening condition, you should call 911 and seek care in an emergency department.
Another care option is urgent care, which is great for treating sudden illnesses or injuries that do not require emergency care, but still need to be treated within 24 hours. For example, sprains or strains, minor eye injuries, urinary tract infections, cuts requiring stitches, etc. If more extensive care is needed, you’ll be referred to a local emergency room.
Urgent care or the emergency department should not be used to replace primary care. A detailed family history, preventive screenings and comprehensive health assessments for chronic diseases are not typically performed during urgent care or emergency department visits. Your primary care provider can help identify risk factors and improve your long-term health. Additionally, in monitoring your overall health, the PCP often adds value to the care provided during an urgent care visit. For example, a patient of mine in her early 60s was recently seen in urgent care with a foot fracture. She was treated with a splint and told to follow-up in my office. When I saw her, I referred her to an orthopedic foot specialist for her fracture care and identified that her fracture might have been precipitated by underlying osteoporosis (weak bones). Subsequent testing confirmed this diagnosis and her treatment regimen was affected. As a result, we are treating her current fracture and we are treating her to prevent future fractures.
Of course, the main goal is to help people find the most appropriate level of care. To learn more about your care options, talk to your primary care physician. To find a primary care physician near you, reach out to your health insurance provider.