We’ve all been there. Perhaps you have a mild sore throat and cough on Friday but by Saturday afternoon the cough has worsened. Or you wake up in the middle of the night with extreme nausea and a high fever. What is the most appropriate place to receive care in the most timely manner?
Primary care providers
One of the best ways to care for your own health is to establish a primary care provider (PCP), says Ashley Iles M.D., assistant professor in the University of Louisville Department of Family and Geriatric Medicine and a physician with UofL Physicians Centers for Primary Care at Cardinal Station.
“Primary care refers to medical care given by a provider – physician, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant. This is the first point of contact for patients’ non-emergent symptoms, disease management and health concerns.
“For an acute illness like a sinus infection or earache that comes on suddenly during the week, a primary care provider should be your first point of contact,” she said.
PCPs also encompass preventative types of care including cancer screenings, vaccinations, health maintenance exams and patient education.
“Think of your PCP facility as your medical home,” Iles said.
Urgent or immediate care
An urgent care or immediate care center, however, may be the best option for after hours for worsening acute illness or injuries like mild sprains. These facilities may have an x-ray machine and the ability to perform some lab tests on-the-spot.
“Think episodic care for urgent care centers,” Iles said. “If you need non-emergency care at a time when you can’t get to your primary care provider, these are good alternatives.”
But Iles says patients should understand that urgent care facilities don’t keep track of their medical problems, prescriptions or visits the way a primary care provider would.
“Be sure to follow-up with your primary care provider if you’ve gone to immediate care so they can update your medical records,” Iles said.
Emergency rooms should be reserved for life-threatening conditions or injuries that could result in serious complications if not immediately addressed, says Adam Ross, M.D., medical director of UofL’s Department of Emergency Medicine.
National statistics indicate that between 5.5 to 8 percent of ER visits are non-urgent.
“However, as you can imagine, someone may come in with chest pain, concerned about a heart attack, and after a workup in the emergency room (EKG, chest x-ray, blood tests, etc.), it’s determined their pain was from GERD or heartburn” Ross said. “While their diagnosis is not an emergent one, the symptom they presented with certainly is.”
It is better to be safe than sorry, says Ross.
“Always go to the ER when you feel life or limb are at risk: chest pain, shortness of breath, severe headache, weakness, numbness or speech difficulty, severe cuts, excessive bleeding, broken bones or other symptoms with which you are emergently concerned,” he said.
Call 9-1-1 if you are experiencing what seems to be a life-threatening condition. Otherwise, patients can often call their medical insurance company hotlines to speak with an on-call providers that can give advice on what to do. UofL Centers for Primary Care at Cardinal Station can often see patients for acute illnesses or minor injuries the same week. Make an appointment by calling 502-588-8700. An on-call doctor is available to answer urgent medical questions after hours.