Navigating Healthcare: ER, Urgent Care & Primary Care Providers

by Melissa Kuhn, MA HEd, CCP, CTTS

You are not alone if you struggle with the decision “where should I go?” when you are sick. With an array of choices between the emergency room, urgent care, walk-in-clinics, and your own primary care provider’s office, the decision is not made any easier when you feel miserable and just want to feel better faster. If it is 3:00 pm and you are on your third day with nausea and loose stools, you may feel you need to go to the emergency room. However, a call to your primary care provider usually results in being seen the same day or the next with medicine for nausea relief perhaps called into your pharmacy. Your primary care provider (PCP) would get the necessary information from you to determine if your symptoms are an emergency. Sometimes, there are true emergencies, which are defined as “serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situations requiring immediate action or treatment.” Common emergencies that warrant an emergency room visit include:

  • Sudden chest pain
  • Broken bones 
  • Head and neck injuries
  • Stroke symptoms
  • Severe bleeding
  • Coughing up blood or throwing up blood
  • Allergic reactions with trouble breathing and/or swelling
  • Deep wounds

In situations when you’re not sure what to do, a call to your PCP will help you make that decision. Your PCP is the quarterback of your healthcare team – the leader for everything related to your health and the ideal person to help you navigate the system and assist you when you are ill. As the person who knows you best medically, he/she can help guide you toward the path to recovery. Your PCP usually can see you that same day or the next day depending on when you call. Many practices have extenders who work in concert with your provider, and they can also help by providing care when you are sick. Additionally, many practices have walk-in clinics where any patient can be seen without an appointment by simply arriving during
the clinic hours.

What do you do when you feel unwell but it is after clinic hours? You can call the doctor on call. Every clinic has a health care provider on call to answer questions that can’t wait until the next day when the practice reopens for regular office hours. At some clinics, the PCP shares calls among all providers, and they are available to their clinic population seven days a week. Dr. Kathleen Letizia, a PCP at Pinehurst Medical, states, “You may feel that it is a stranger answering your call, but all of the doctors here have access to their patients’ records via their home computer. So when you call, I can review your medical history and come up with a plan to treat your problem with often greater accuracy than outside providers who have no or limited access to your records.”

In order to contact your PCP, you need to know your physician’s office number and hours. There may also be separate office lines for triaging calls from sick patients. If a practice has a walk-in-clinic, it may operate different hours during the day and weekends. Finally, many practices have a patient portal electronic communication method, which can also be used to contact your PCP.  

Planning ahead is key. You need to have the information above ready so that when you are ill, you know what to do to get the best help possible. Most patients know to call 911 in a true emergency, but many don’t know what to do when their illness is not severe enough to call for an ambulance. When in doubt, it is best to call your doctor. They are ready to take care of you.

Dr. Kathleen Letizia is an Internal Medicine Provider at Pinehurst Medical Clinic. Melissa Kuhn is a Wellness & Quality Program Manager also at Pinehurst Medical Clinic. Both Dr. Letizia and Ms. Kuhn can be reached at 910-235-3347.