When to Visit the ER Versus an Urgent Care Center

Why hospital emergency rooms are over-used.

ByABC News
February 2, 2015, 6:17 AM
It's difficult to predict what could end up sending you to the emergency room.
It's difficult to predict what could end up sending you to the emergency room.
Getty Images

— -- I'm sitting in a dressing room at "The Dr. Oz Show" as I write this week's column, and I learned something researching the segment I'm doing here, so thought you might too. The subject? When to go to your primary care physician versus urgent care or a retail medical clinic or the emergency room. Here's how it breaks down:

•Primary Care Physician: This is the person you want to check in with during annual physicals. Your PCP is also the professional who can manage chronic conditions for you, like high blood pressure and diabetes. In addition, it's OK to get something like a urinary tract infection diagnosed at a retail clinic, but if it keeps coming back, there could be something more going on, so then it's time to check in with your PCP.

•Emergency Room: Take your cue from the "E" in "ER." Emergency! The ER has been abused for years, but it's really best for serious injuries like a broken leg or if you've cut the tip of your finger off. Severe chest pain would also warrant a visit. Or a high fever and, just to be clear, high means 103-plus.

•Urgent Care: Maybe you've cut your finger, rather than cut off your finger. You want somebody to look at it, but it's not an emergency. Urgent care facilities are typically staffed by actual doctors and they try to get you in and out within an hour.

•Retail Clinic: These are the medical centers in grocery and drug stores, usually staffed by nurses. Some swear nurses are better at giving shots than doctors are and vaccinations can be a good use of these facilities. Also routine lab tests and conditions that are cut and dried to diagnose, like strep.

Opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.

Elisabeth Leamy is a 20-year consumer advocate for programs such as "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show." She is the author of Save BIG and The Savvy Consumer. Elisabeth is also a professional speaker, delivering talks nationwide on saving money, media relations, and career success. Elisabeth receives her best story tips from readers, so please connect with her via Facebook, Twitter or her website, to share your ideas.