Where to obtain medical care – Quick decision guide

Location Type

Types of Services Offered

When to Go


Who You’ll See

Primary Care Doctor’s Office

Testing, Prescriptions, Preventive Care, Illness Treatment, Disease Management, Referrals

•Preventative Care
•Managing existing conditions


MD, DO, Nurse Practitioner, &/or Physician’s Assistant

Walk-In Clinic

Simple Testing, Prescriptions, Preventive Care

•Sub-acute symptoms of common illnesses or skin conditions
•Screenings & vaccinations


MD, DO, Nurse Practitioner, &/or Physician’s Assistant

Emergency Room

Triage, diagnosis, treatment/stabilization of a serious or critical injury or illness

•Life threatening symptoms
•Sudden-onset pain
•Acute injuries


ER Physician,
Nurse Practitioner, Physician Assistant, Nurse, &/or Paramedic

When to go to the ER

You should go to the ER for the following acute, sudden-onset symptoms and conditions, or traumatic injuries:

  • Severe physical trauma, such as from a car accident, broken bones or dislocated joints

  • A sudden and severe headache

  • Severe flu or cold symptoms such as severe shortness of breath, high fever (>101 F) uncontrolled by Tylenol/Ibuprofen, or inability to keep clear liquids down

  • Any severe pain, especially in the abdomen or starting halfway down the back – it could be appendicitis requiring emergency surgery

  • Symptoms of a heart attack: including sudden or persistent chest pain, the feeling of a heavy weight on your chest, pain radiating down one or both arms. As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

  • Severe shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, severe heart palpitations

  • Sudden clumsiness, loss of balance or fainting (for no apparent reason such as during physical exertion)

  • Sudden difficulty speaking, trouble understanding speech, weakness or paralysis especially on one side of the body

  • Sudden vision change, including blurred vision, double vision or full to partial vision loss

  • Sudden testicular pain and swelling

  • Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy

  • Seizures without a previous diagnosis of epilepsy

  • Severe and persistent diarrhea or vomiting

  • Any head or eye injury

  • Newborn baby with a fever (a baby less than 3 months old with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher needs to be seen immediately)

  • Coughing up blood, blood in vomit or bright red blood in stool

  • Deep cuts that require stitches (especially to the face) – serious bleeding that doesn’t stop after 10 minutes will require stitches

  • Altered mental status or confusion, including suicidal thoughts

When to call 911 – When in doubt call an ambulance. You should not drive yourself to the emergency room if you’re experiencing chest pain, severe bleeding, dizziness or nausea (or any other signs of head trauma). If you believe your injuries or symptoms are life-threatening or may become life threatening within a few minutes, call 911.

Pros + cons of the emergency room


  • They can stabilize anything and everything, with a full complement of medical doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners. You may be trasferred to another department or hospital based on the severity of your immediate need

  • Patients with critical, life-threatening conditions are prioritized to be treated immediately


  • Emergency rooms are the most expensive health care option available

  • If other patients with more critical conditions come to the emergency room, your wait may be extended if you have a non-life-threatening condition

When to go to the walk-in clinic

Go to the walk in clinic for the following kinds of symptoms and conditions:

  • Sore/strep throat

  • Minor to moderate flu-like or cold symptoms

  • Pink eye and styes

  • UTI, bladder infections and yeast infections

  • Heartburn + indigestion

  • Sinus infections

  • Bug, tick bites + stings

  • Minor cuts, blisters, and wounds

  • Suture and staple removal

  • Cholesterol screening

  • Skin conditions like athlete’s foot, shingles, sunburn, and lice

  • Vaccinations and general wellness physicals

Pros + cons of walk-in care clinics


  • No appointment needed – just walk in

  • Most accept insurance to cover all or part of the costs of a visit

  • Hours often coincide with retail store hours, meaning some evening and weekend availability

  • Price transparency – walk-in clinics often post the prices of their services on their website

  • Less expensive than other health care providers for many of the services they provide


  • You most likely won’t be seen by a doctor as walk-in care clinics are generally staffed by physician’s assistants and nurse practitioners; however, some doctors do provide walk-in care services

  • Unless you’ve previously used the clinic, you will need to provide an accurate health and medical history to ensure quality care

When to go to your primary care physician

Family doctors play a vital role in the healthcare system. Nearly 20% of all physician’s office visits for the year take place with primary care physicians.

Go to your primary care physician for the following kinds of symptoms and conditions:

  • Cough, cold, flu

  • Ear infections and sore throat

  • Minor injuries like sprains, bumps and bruises

  • Skin problems

  • Urinary tract infections

Your primary care doctor can also coordinate your care for chronic conditions like:

  • Allergies and asthma

  • Arthritis

  • COPD

  • Heart disease

  • High blood pressure

  • Diabetes and obesity

  • Substance abuse

Primary care physicians most commonly perform the following kinds of health care services:

Diagnostics and screenings – Your primary care physician is a generalist, patient educator and care coordinator. If you go to your primary care doctor reporting symptoms they will ask you questions, perform a physical examination, order up lab work or possibly X-rays, and write prescriptions to help manage symptoms. Then refer you out for further testing and treatment if necessary.

Referral to specialists – Your primary care doctor may not be current on the latest research into treatment of sciatica pain or be able to perform hernia surgery, but they can send you to a specialist who can. And even if you’re sure your foot pain is caused by plantar fasciitis, you may still need to go through your primary physician to be referred to a podiatrist.

Preventive health care such as annual wellness visits – While you may only visit an urgent care center or ER when you need acute care, your family doctor’s role includes preventive health services such as annual wellness exams, vaccinations, cholesterol and cancer screenings.

Pros and cons of going to the doctor’s office


  • Your family practitioner has access to your medical records and health history, which can help ensure you get appropriate, consistent care.


  • You may need to wait a week or more to obtain medical services depending on how busy your doctor is.