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Alternatives to Emergency Room Care

Immediate Medical Care: ER or Other Options?

When you need immediate medical care, the first line of advice has traditionally been, “Go to the nearest emergency room.” But is that advice the best course of action? With visits to the ER at an all-time high, wait times have skyrocketed. And emergency room treatments for non-emergency medical conditions contribute to the rising cost of our healthcare. So what are other care settings, and how do you determine which is best?

Alternatives to ER Care

Unless it’s a true emergency, you’ll likely get quicker medical care at other care settings such as an urgent care center, retail health clinic or walk-in doctor’s office. Use these options, where available, when you need medical care quickly, but can’t see your regular doctor. These conveniently located, licensed and accredited care settings are staffed with doctors, nurses and physician’s assistants. So you’ll get quality care, and you’ll often pay much less than you would for emergency care. And they’re usually open evenings, weekends and sometimes holidays, and can cost about the same as a doctor visit.

  • Urgent care center: These clinics can usually handle problems that need immediate attention but aren’t life-threatening or emergencies, like stitches, sprains and x-rays.
  • Retail health clinic: Many major pharmacies and retail stores now have these walk-in clinics staffed by medical professionals. Go there when you need convenient, routine care, like for coughs and flu shots.
  • Walk-in doctor’s office: No appointment is needed at these offices, and you usually aren’t required to be an existing patient. This alternative is a good choice when you need simple medical care in a hurry, like for mild asthma or minor allergic reactions.

Your health plan may have a 24/7 nurse line that you can call for assistance in determining the severity of your symptoms and where to go for care.

Where Should I Go?

Here are more details on the options you have for some common health problems.

 Retail Health Clinic
 Walk-in Doctor's Office
 Emergency Room
Animal bites
  • Sudden or unexplained loss of consciousness
  • Signs of a heart attack, such as sudden/severe chest pain or pressure
  • Signs for a stroke, such as numbness of the face, arm or leg on one side of the body; difficulty talking; sudden loss of vision
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • High fever with stiff neck, mental confusion and/or difficulty breathing
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Cut or wound that won't stop bleeding
  • Possible broken bones
  • Poisoning
  • Stab wounds
  • Sudden, severe abdominal pain
  • Trauma to the head
  • Suicidal feelings
  • Partial or total amputation of a limb
Back pain
Mild asthma
Minor headache
Sprain, strain
Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
Bumps, cuts, scrapes
Burning with urination
Cough, sore throat
Ear or sinus pain
Eye swelling, irritation, redness or pain
Minor allergic reaction
Minor fever, colds
Rash, minor bumps

For a PDF of Where to Go, download here.

Plan Ahead

It’s important that you understand your options before you need them, so review this information and speak to your primary care doctor about the care settings near you. There may even be a nurse or on-call doctor to help you. It’s also a good idea to check your medical coverage to see which care options are in your network.