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Health & Wellness

Emergency Department or a Walk-in Clinic? This Information May Help You Decide

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No one plans to go to the emergency room. But in a true medical emergency, an ER has the physicians, nurses, expertise, training, tests and equipment that may save your life

One challenge can be knowing whether or not you’re experiencing a true medical emergency. When you’re injured or sick, it can be difficult to make a decision between heading to the emergency room, opting for a walk-in clinic or calling your primary care doctor.

Lori Chiappetta, RN, manager of the trauma, emergency medical services system and emergency management departments at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in the Chicago area, offers some helpful tips in making that important distinction.

Get Old: Are there specific symptoms or issues that absolutely demand an emergency room visit? What are they?
Lori Chiappetta: Some specific instances where people should go to the emergency department include (but are not limited to):

  • Severe abdominal pain that comes on suddenly or keeps getting worse
  • Chest pain or unusual shortness of breath
  • Extremely intense headache — think the worst headache of your life, especially if it comes with dizziness of vomiting
  • A cut that won’t stop bleeding
  • Bleeding from rectum
  • Allergic reactions
  • Sudden change in vision
  • Unexplained confusion
  • Adult with a high fever that is not relieved with over-the-counter medication
  • Swelling to tongue or face
  • Fainting
  • Open fractures (with the bone coming through the skin)

GO: What are some guiding questions that can help make the decision to go to the emergency room or not?
LC: If you are unsure and not experiencing one of the above symptoms, you should try calling your primary care physician to talk through your situation. They know your medical history and can offer more immediate guidance to make sure you go to the right place. In a situation where you think you could have ingested something dangerous, you should consider calling poison control.

GO: When should people opt for urgent care/a walk-in clinic?
LC: Some specific health issues for an urgent care or walk-in clinic include common illnesses and injuries, including cold and flu symptoms, ear pain, sore throat, mild headaches, pink eye, rashes, upper respiratory infections, sprains, strains, and dental pain.  If you are unsure, again don’t hesitate to call your primary doctor to discuss your options first.

GO: Are there common mistakes that you’ve seen people make when deciding on the ER vs. a walk-in clinic?
LC: Don’t worry about wait times. Many people come in and see long waits, but at the ER we treat the sickest people first, regardless of when they get to the department. If you experience any of the symptoms above, seek out medical attention immediately. When you have an emergency, go to the emergency department. If you are experiencing chronic symptoms, follow up with your primary care physician as a general rule unless something has changed. If you come in to the emergency department, our goal is to rule out things that are life-threatening and send you home with follow-ups.

GO: What are some considerations you can share about the ER vs. visiting a walk-in clinic?
LC: Emergency departments feature large, equipped staffs trained to respond quickly to the most serious of health threats. However, there may be a limited number of rooms available, and the more critically ill or injured patients will be triaged ahead of others. Walk-in clinics may offer a higher level of accessibility with different locations, regular hours and the ability to set up appointments. They are frequently equipped to handle more common, non-life-threatening injuries and illnesses. However, they may not have the same access to resources as emergency rooms, particularly for life-threatening problems.

GO: What other advice can you share? 
LC: First, before you go, check to see if the walk-in clinic will accept your insurance. Also, having your medical history on hand may help you get the care you need as quickly as possible.  If you’re able, bring a list of previous and current medical problems, allergies and medications, particularly if you haven’t been to the hospital before. You should also have the name of your primary care physician and pharmacy readily available if possible.

Lastly, I would advise patients to listen to their bodies. If you experience one of the serious symptoms above or think you may be facing something life-threatening, the worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself. Whether you talk to your primary care physician or head straight to an emergency room, be sure you get the help you need.

(Note: While this article does not include 911, readers who are unable to get themselves to the ER shouldn’t hesitate to call that number in a medical emergency.)

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