When is it an emergency?

Dr. Lenthe explains when to choose less-costly urgent care available in walk-in clinics

This column was first published as an ‘Examining Health’ article in the Standard Examiner newspaper on Jan. 29, 2014.

By Mark Lenthe, Tanner Clinic Family Doctor

Is your child feeling sick? Did you get a deep cut that may need stitches? What if your spouse is hunched over with severe chest pain? Or, what if it’s just that your primary-care doctor’s schedule is too full. When is it an actual emergency?

The answer is not always simple, but knowing the difference between urgent care and emergency care may help. Yes, an emergency room may save your life in a crisis, but you’ll receive similar care and save time and money at an urgent care clinic.

These statistics will help you see the difference. The numbers are from a study of average claims submitted in 2010 to a mid-western health agency: 

Emergency graphic

The rule we often hear is: “If it’s an emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.” But how you define an emergency may be entirely different from how an ER nurse does. In fact, 88 percent of patients who visit the emergency room could safely be seen at their primary care doctor or an urgent care clinic, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, many patients don’t actually need the high level of service – and cost – of an emergency room visit.

As a general guideline, call 911 immediately if you have:

  • ▸ Crushing chest pain
  • ▸ Severe bleeding
  • ▸ Trouble breathing
  • ▸ Signs of stroke

Go directly to an emergency room if you’re having serious symptoms such as intense pain, which could possibly indicate an inflamed appendicitis, gallbladder attack or a kidney stone.

But with such symptoms as sore throat, urinary tract infection or earache, the first call you should make is to your primary-care physician — or you can seek help at an urgent care clinic. Urgent care centers are a great alternative to your primary care doctor and, especially, the emergency room.

Dr. Mark Lenthe is a board-certified family practitioner at Tanner Clinic in Layton. Tanner Clinic offers both daytime and evening urgent care assistance at its clinics in Layton, Kaysville and Roy. More information on hours is available on the Locations page.