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Primary Care, Urgent Care or ER? Where to Go for Care When You Need It

Sick and not sure where you should go? Get the best and most cost-effective treatment for your condition with this guide to your healthcare options.


photo of Emergency Room entrance

You have a lot of healthcare options. Which is good! You can choose your doctor, clinic and location. You can have a primary care provider and see other health professionals when it better fits your needs or schedule.

All that flexibility can lead to difficult decisions about your health. When you’ve come down with an illness or sustained an injury, it’s hard to know if it’s a problem that can wait or if it needs immediate medical attention.

You never know when you’ll get sick or hurt. But knowing where you should go when you do suffer a health setback will help eliminate the stress and get you the right treatment for your needs.

Your primary care physician should be your first choice.

Having a primary care provider who knows you is important. They’re the point person for your overall health and the starting point for your medical care. Your primary care provider’s knowledge of your health history makes them best suited to get you the care you need.

Schedule an appointment with your primary care provider for:

  • Preventive care – Annual wellness exams, routine vaccines and age-specific screenings and tests
  • Common illnesses – Persistent cold symptoms, flu symptoms, pink eye, stomach problems and fever
  • Common injuries – Pain, sprains, backpain, abdominal pain, hypertension and thyroid
  • Management of health conditions – Diabetes and medication refills
  • Infections – Sinus, ear, skin infections
  • Women’s health issues – Pap smears, pregnancy tests and other common problems
  • Mental health – Anxiety and depression
  • Skin problems – Rashes and wart removal
  • General heart ailments – Hypertension and high cholesterol

There are so many primary care locations in Des Moines that getting in to see a primary care provider is the most convenient and cost-effective choice. Insurance varies, but your own primary care doctor and others cost the least out-of-pocket. So if your health issue can wait a day or so for an appointment, primary care is the best option.

Use urgent care when your health just can’t wait.

When you feel terrible or are in pain, waiting any amount of time feels like an eternity. So waiting a day for an appointment isn’t as appealing as sitting in a waiting room at urgent care clinic. And many health issues warrant immediate attention:

  • Sore throats, sinus infections, coughs and other minor illnesses
  • Sprains, strains, fractures and dislocations
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Abdominal and back pain
  • Migraines
  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Asthma and COPD exacerbation
  • Cuts and minor burns
  • Skin rashes and infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Post-surgical infections
  • IV hydration and IV antibiotic administration
  • Infusions

Urgent care clinics offer extended hours — helpful when your health problem happens outside normal business hours or on a weekend. Many urgent care locations offer things you might normally think only a hospital can do — taking x-rays, running lab tests or bloodwork and treating minor trauma.

Only go to the ER when it’s an absolute emergency.

This is where the decision gets hard for many people. You know your health depends on getting quick care. But how quick is quick? Can this wait until tomorrow? What exactly is an emergency health issue?

The words “life-threatening” should be your guide. The emergency room is meant to treat true emergencies and life-threatening situations, such as:

  • Severe allergic reactions to food, animal or bug bites
  • Broken bones
  • Chest pain
  • Continuous bleeding and deep or a large open wounds
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Sudden weakness or pain in a leg or arm
  • Severe head or eye injuries
  • Unconsciousness
  • Suspected heart attack or stroke

If you experience these issues or feel your health is in danger in any other way, go to the emergency room. But if your medical situation doesn’t require immediate attention, it can probably be taken care of at urgent care.

Patients often go to the ER when urgent care would be the better choice. Emergency rooms are convenient — they’re open 24 hours a day — but they are meant for the most serious medical situations. Your wait time will reflect that, as patients with more pressing needs receive help faster than those in for more routine treatments. The cost of your visit will reflect it, too. On average, the cost of a trip to the ER is three times more than a visit to urgent care.

Wait...there’s one more option — virtual care.

Virtual care is another non-emergency option. You can visit a doctor online, either from your computer or through an app on your phone. Clinics and health systems aren’t the only ones offering virtual care. Your insurance provider may also have a virtual option.

With virtual care, you get a consultation with a physician without having to schedule an appointment or sit in a waiting room at urgent care. And some virtual care services are available 24/7, which eliminates the need to visit the ER in non-emergency situations.

You can easily make a virtual care visit on your break from work or from the comfort of your own home. You’ll get an evaluation and treatment based on your symptoms and, if needed, a prescription or recommendation on where to go for more care. A virtual provider can simply answer your medical questions or diagnose many illnesses and injuries, like:

  • Common illnesses – Headaches, migraines, cold, cough, sinus infection, fever, allergies, flu and sore throat
  • Pediatric conditions – Diaper rash, strep throat, constipation, pink eye and lice
  • Gastrointestinal and stomach issues – Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation motion sickness and heartburn
  • Infections – Bladder, yeast and urinary tract infections
  • Skin problems – Rashes, canker sores, cold sores, dry skin, eczema, poison ivy, tick bites, bug bites, burns, sunburns and skin diseases

No matter which healthcare option you choose — primary, urgent, emergency or virtual — you should always update your primary care provider. As the hub for your healthcare, they should always be in the know on your medical conditions.

How will I ever remember all the differences between healthcare options?

In the moment when you need it, it’s hard to be 100% clear on where to go for care. Everyone experiences symptoms and weighs factors like cost and convenience differently. Download or refer to this comparison chart to make the best decision the next time you get sick or injured.

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