Emergency care, urgent care, and primary care all serve different purposes

In medicine, there is a tendency to use complicated, two-dollar words when simple words would seem to do the trick. Hyperglycemia for high blood sugar? Enuresis for bed-wetting? Myocardial infarction for heart attack? And sometimes it seems like new names for old things are being invented every day.

In reality, complicated terminology can offer subtle distinctions about a medical condition or situation. New terminology may be applied to old concerns when our understanding of the thing has grown and changed based on better data.

And yes, sometimes people just like to sound smart.

One area in which similar sounding terms may seem like they unnecessarily complicate the discussion is with types of medical care. But in reality, the terms used here mean distinctly different things, and not understanding those differences can be costly in both health and financial terms.

Let’s look at the distinctions between emergency care, urgent care, and primary care.

Emergency Care

This might be the most obvious category. If you have a medical emergency, you should seek medical care from an emergency department in a hospital or in a freestanding emergency care center. Things like chest pain, difficulty breathing, or head injury are all examples of issues that are best handled in an emergency setting.

An emergency room needs to be equipped with everything needed to handle emergencies around the clock. This means access to appropriate testing and diagnostic resources, like MRI and CT scans, and specially trained staff. These things make emergency care expensive, which is reasonable when it’s needed, but extravagant when it’s not. In fact, unnecessary emergency visits may accrue about $38 billion each year in excess medical costs.

In short, these facilities are staffed and equipped to handle life-threatening situations that may require rapid or advanced treatments, and it’s best to only use them for that purpose.

Urgent care

Urgent care sounds like it could be similar to emergency care because of the word “urgent.” But in reality, it’s quite different. Urgent care is designed to provide healthcare for issues that need to be addressed when your regular physician is not available. Think sprained ankle or small cuts that need medical attention. It’s not a substitute for primary care, but a way to manage things until primary care is available.

Urgent care facilities are often freestanding buildings in shopping centers. In recent years, some hospitals have opened freestanding emergency care centers, and this can be a point of confusion. If you go to one of the freestanding emergency care centers, you will be charged for an emergency room visit, even if you are being seen for an urgent care concern. In this case your insurance company may not approve the emergency visit and you could be stuck with a big bill. So be careful to go to an urgent care facility if that’s really what you need.

Another important note about urgent care and emergency care both: they are not substitutes for primary care.

Primary care

If your primary care clinic or provider (PCP) can offer you an appointment in a reasonable amount of time, they should be your first stop for all of your non-emergency healthcare needs.

They are the providers best-equipped to care for both sudden illnesses and long-term concerns, because they consider your entire medical record when they do so. They have built a relationship with you throughout your visits with them. So not only do they know what medications you are taking, they know the other medications you tried and why they didn’t work. They know your medical history and they know your personal concerns and preferences. Often, they will be familiar with outside stresses in your life that may be contributing to physical problems. You may not be in the proper frame of mind to share all of this information with an urgent care provider, so a PCP is best-positioned to provide the personalized care you need.

In the end emergency care, urgent care, and primary care all provide different and needed healthcare services, even if the names sound similar or confusing. If you have a question about what you need, please don’t hesitate to contact us for help choosing where you should seek care. And if you haven’t established a provider-patient relationship with a PCP, now is the time to do so. We have highly-trained healthcare providers in Greenville and throughout Hunt County who would like to help you live the healthiest life possible.