Primary Care, Urgent Care, and Emergency Care: What’s the Difference?

December 23, 2021
Health 101

Need to see a doctor, but don't know where to go? We break down the three most common places to receive generalized care and when you should seek each out.

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Navigating the modern health care system has never been straightforward, but certain aspects of the process can feel especially complicated.


Though in many ways access to health care has improved with the adoption of virtual care, the diversity of options when it comes to finding care can make it difficult to understand where to go when you need help. 


When it comes to in-person care, three major destinations include primary, urgent, and emergency care. Understanding the advantages and services of each can help you determine where you or a loved one should go if an accident, illness, or other health event arises. 


What is primary care? 


Primary care is often the first point of contact for day-to-day health services by physicians and their health care teams. 


Primary care physicians are trained to provide comprehensive and continuing care for persons with any undiagnosed sign, symptom, or health concern. In other words, no matter what the condition may be, your primary care physician is trained to help you figure out the best path forward, whether that includes a referral to a specialist or not. 


In non life-threatening situations, your primary care provider will often act as your first point of entry for health care services. Many primary care providers offer in-person visits as well as telehealth and video appointments. 


In many cases, you may develop a longstanding relationship with your primary care physician, who you can also visit for your annual physical exam.  

Interested in finding a primary care physician? There are many from theMount Sinai Medical System practicing at HealthQuarters, learn more on the primary care page of our website.


When should you seek primary care? 


When scheduling routine check-ups, health maintenance, or help with a minor injury or illness (including but not limited to urinary tract infections (UTIs) or sprains and strains), visiting your primary care provider is a great option.

 

What is emergency care?


Emergency care departments are trained to treat life-threatening and limb-threatening conditions in people of all ages. Emergency departments are available 24/7 every day of the year and have a team of qualified physicians and staff available, most of which are board certified in emergency medicine. Emergency rooms (ER) operate on a walk-in basis.


When should you seek emergency care? 


You should dial 9-1-1 or visit your local ER immediately when faced with a severe or life-threatening condition. Examples of conditions that warrant emergency care include:


  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Facial drooping
  • Chest pains or symptoms of heart attack and stroke
  • Allergic reactions
  • Bleeding that doesn’t stop after 10 minutes
  • Head trauma
  • Seizures
  • Poisoning
  • Coughing or vomiting blood
  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings
  • High fever in elderly adults or young children 
  • Open fractures, severe cuts, burns, or uncontrollable bleeding
  • Knife, gun, or other serious wound


What is urgent care?


Urgent care is the midway point between emergency and primary care. Urgent care centers provide quality health care services when your primary care provider isn’t available, or when you need more immediate attention (as long as it’s not life-threatening, in which case you should seek emergency care.)


When should you seek urgent care? 


If you’re seeking help for an illness or injury that doesn’t appear to be life threatening but can’t wait until the next day, urgent care is the best place to go.


Urgent medical conditions include:


  • Accidents and falls
  • Cuts that require stitches
  • Mild to moderate asthma
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, or dehydration

Finding the right care for your needs


It can be difficult to know where to turn for help, especially after an accident or in an emergency. Familiarizing yourself with the major types of care available will help you and your family feel confident that you’re seeking the right type of care if and when you need it most.


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