Where to Get the Care You Need: Differences Between Primary Care, Urgent Care, and the Emergency Room

Chloe Meck cmeck@bilh.org

DECEMBER 13, 2021

Depending on your specific illness or injury, seeking the right type of care in the right location may save you time and money

BOSTON – You may have heard that hospitals are busier than ever. You’ve just slipped in your driveway and think you may have sprained or broken your ankle. You need to see a doctor. But where? Should you go to the nearest emergency room, or to urgent care? Should you call your primary care physician?

“Hospitals today are facing extraordinary challenges,” said Marsha Maurer, DNP, RN, senior vice president of Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer at BIDMC. “While patients may experience longer wait times, our hard-working providers and staff continue to deliver safe, high-quality care in several different settings. It is important to know the options available to you so you can decide which one is best for your specific needs.”

When to contact your primary care physician

Primary care physicians know their patients and their patients’ medical history best. They can diagnose and treat non-urgent conditions such as minor infections, headaches, muscle pains, minor scrapes and bruises. For some conditions, telehealth may also be an option, allowing the patient to have an appointment with their provider in the comfort of their own home.

“Primary care providers are a valuable resource for patients in helping them to effectively manage their care and prevent emergent conditions,” said Eileen Reynolds, MD, chief of General Internal Medicine at BIDMC. “Connecting with your primary care physician is a great place to start if your symptoms do not require absolute immediate attention.”

Examples of care available through primary care:

  • Cold, flu and sore throat
  • Ear, sinus or urinary tract infection
  • Headaches and muscle pains
  • Stomach pains, nausea, diarrhea, or constipation
  • Minor scrapes or bruises
  • Managing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure

To find a Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center primary care physician, please visit the BIDMC Find a Doctor website.

When to go to an urgent care center

For non-emergent injuries that are beyond the scope of primary care but don’t rise to the level of emergency care, urgent care centers are also an option. Urgent care centers can perform a multitude of tests – with some locations offering X-rays and lab services, and some centers offering IV fluids for dehydration or IV antibiotics for an infection. Visiting an urgent care center can save you time and money. Some even offer the ability to reserve a place in line, online, so patients can wait from the comfort of their own homes.

“Urgent care is an important option to deliver near immediate care for many non-emergent injuries and illnesses,” said Sam Skura, chief operating officer at BIDMC. “Urgent care centers often have shorter wait times compared to emergency departments for non-emergent care and some even offer the option to book an appointment ahead of time.”

Examples of care available through urgent care:

  • Sprains
  • Animal bites or stings
  • Minor cuts or burns
  • Dehydration
  • Pink eye
  • Rashes or other skin issues
  • Primary care concerns (if unable to see primary care provider)

For more information and for a list of BIDMC’s affiliated urgent care centers, please visit the BIDMC Urgent Care page and choose a location that is convenient for you.

When to go to the emergency department

Patients needing more complex emergency care should call 911 or seek care at the closest the emergency department. You should also visit the emergency department if another provider instructs you to do so, or if it’s your only option at the current time and location.

“Emergency departments depend on the skills, expertise and collaboration of countless providers, employees and administrators,” said Richard Wolfe, MD, chief of Emergency Medicine at BIDMC. “We are all still here to provide rapid emergency and trauma care when it is needed. It is important to always seek the care you need and to not delay.”

Examples of care available through the emergency department:

  • Chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • Serious burns, cuts, or lacerations
  • Broken bones or dislocated joints
  • Fainting, changes in mental state, or slurred speech
  • Head or eye injuries
  • Weakness and/or numbness in one side

About Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a leading academic medical center, where extraordinary care is supported by high-quality education and research. BIDMC is a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and consistently ranks as a national leader among independent hospitals in National Institutes of Health funding. BIDMC is the official hospital of the Boston Red Sox.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a part of Beth Israel Lahey Health, a health care system that brings together academic medical centers and teaching hospitals, community and specialty hospitals, more than 4,700 physicians and 39,000 employees in a shared mission to expand access to great care and advance the science and practice of medicine through groundbreaking research and education.