First things first: In a true emergency, you need to stop what you are doing and call 911. If you are experiencing chest pain, weakness or numbness, a change in mental status, or the worst headache of your life, call an ambulance. When the situation is dire, the care needs to come to you.
But most symptoms, while scary or painful, are not life-and-death. So you may be left wondering if you should jump in the car and head to the ER, or if there are other options. For people who have serious or chronic illnesses—like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, COPD or cancer—it’s usually wise to head to the ER where they are well-equipped to handle complex medical needs.
In many cases, though, there is time to first call your doctor’s office or answering service (keep the number stored on your phone) to get a professional opinion on whether you should go. Your physician can also give the ER a heads-up, which may help you get more personalized care. “Especially for children, it may make you feel more comfortable that the ER staff, who have never met you, are armed with information about your child and his particular situation,” Dr. Glatter explains.
Another option if you can’t reach your doctor: Call your insurance provider’s 24-hour helpline, which is typically staffed by nurses or nurse practitioners. “They can offer good advice about whether to go straight to the hospital or take a ‘wait and see’ approach,” Dr. Glatter explains.
If you don’t think you actually need the ER, head to urgent care instead. As anyone who has ever been to an emergency room knows, patients are prioritized in order of urgency. If your situation isn’t critical, you’ll likely end up waiting. Urgent cares treat colds, the flu, strep throat, and minor broken bones or sprains. Most are equipped to do X-rays and provide splints and braces.