There are times when you know you need to go to a hospital emergency department for medical care: a car accident or fall, for example. Other times, it can be more difficult to decide whether to go the emergency department, seek out an urgent care center or see your primary care physician.
If you're certain that you need hospital care, it's much better to be safe than sorry. Yet, if you are unsure about where to go for care, you should contact your family physician for advice immediately.
When to Call 9-1-1
Call 9-1-1 immediately when you or someone you know has a life-threatening injury or medical condition. Do not try to drive yourself, or anyone else, to the hospital if the condition appears serious. Paramedics who respond to 9-1-1 emergency calls are specifically trained to stabilize emergency patients and coordinate their care with the most appropriate hospital emergency department for their treatment.
Life-threatening medical conditions that warrant calling 9-1-1 include, but are not limited to:
- Chest pain.
- Shortness of breath.
- Stroke symptoms, including dizziness, weakness on one side, slurred speech or sudden onset of paralysis.
- Severe abdominal pain, especially after an injury.
- Uncontrollable bleeding.
- Blunt head trauma or a penetrating wound to the head.
- Confusion or loss of consciousness, especially after a head injury.
- Neck injury.
- Poisoning or suspected drug overdose.
- Venomous snake bites.
- Bites from scorpion stings or poisonous spiders, such as black widows or brown recluses — particularly in the case of small children, the elderly or anyone with a suppressed immune system.
- Serious burns or cuts.
- Broken bones.
Not all emergencies that should be treated in the hospital are immediately life threatening. In such cases, call 9-1-1; when paramedics arrive, they will evaluate the stuation and tell you if it is safe to take your loved one to the hospital yourself.
However, people with chest pain, dizziness or stroke symptioms should never drive themselves to the hospital. It's dangerous for them and other drivers.
Urgent conditions usually can be treated at home until you are able to visit an urgent care center or your physician. Examples of urgent situations include:
- Ear infections.
- Urinary tract infections.
Physician Office Visits
Colds, minor flu symptoms, chronic conditions and prescription refills are situations that usually can be addressed by visiting your physician during office hours, although patients come to the Emergency Department for all of those reasons.
Sometimes people visit our emergency department because doing so is more convenient and saves time. Yet, these patients eventually wait longer, compared with going to their physician's office. Why? The emergency department see patients in order of priority, based on the seriousness of their conditions.
If you do not have a primary care physician for you or your family members, see our list of physician offices or visit our Find a Doctor search engine.