Health & Wellness

Doctor, ER or urgent care? Guidelines for when to go where

When health issues pop up suddenly, it isn't always easy to be sure just where to turn for help. Should you speed to a hospital emergency room, seek help from a nearby urgent care clinic, or call your doctor?

The correct answer is: It depends. Monday on TODAY, NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar offered these basic guidelines:

  • If you experience a life-threatening, time-sensitive health problem, go to the emergency room.
  • If the situation is urgent but not life-threatening, go to urgent care.
  • For routine problems, make an appointment with your doctor.

Still, making the correct call can be tricky, as Azar found out when she quizzed TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie and Carson Daly about where they would go for medical help in certain situations. Here are four common scenarios and the correct answer for each:

1. You’re at the playground and your child falls off the swing or their hoverboard. You already see bruising, swelling and lots of pain. Where should you take your son or daughter?

Answer: Emergency room

Daly was surprised, calling urgent care "ER without the line." But Azar explained why the ER is the best choice in this case.

“If you’ve got a little fracture — a minor fracture that requires splinting — urgent care is absolutely a fantastic place to go,” she said. “But if you have a more significant fracture, even a compound fracture — something sticking through your skin — you might need a cast… you may even need surgery. Not all fractures are created equal.”

When it comes to children, Azar urges extra caution. If something happens on the playground, go to the emergency room because you want to have the experts taking care of the problem, she advised.

2. You have a spot on your wrist that’s gotten inflamed. You knocked your watch into it and now it’s bleeding. What do you do?

Answer: See a doctor

“We always talk about those suspicious moles or lesions on your skin that can bleed. It could be a skin cancer — you go to the doctor for that, that’s not something that’s urgent,” Azar explained.

3. You’ve just held a dinner party. You’ve been feeling indigestion all day and, as you clean up, you notice an unusually heavy feeling in your left arm. Where do you go?

Answer: Emergency room

“This is a life-threatening problem that is very time-sensitive, so you… want to go directly to the emergency room,” Azar said.

“Whenever there’s a symptom that’s potentially life threatening — if you think you’re having a heart attack — you go straight to the emergency room. You have to err on the side of caution.”

4. While unloading the dishwasher, you make the wrong move and are overcome by pain that makes it hard to stand up. Where do you go?

Answer: Urgent care.

This is a situation that is urgent but isn't life-threatening, Azar explained. You need a doctor to examine you and probably prescribe pain medicine, but you don’t need emergency care.

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