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ER or urgent care center: where should you go?

June 26, 2016 General Wellness
Last Updated on February 15, 2021

Making quick choices is tough, especially when you or someone in your family needs fast medical attention. When it comes to getting treatment for injury or illness, where should you be going: the urgent care center or the emergency room?

Urgent care centers and emergency rooms both offer similar services, like x-rays and blood tests, but depending on your medical need, one facility might be a better option than the other.

Although split-second decisions are typical in medical emergencies, it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with what constitutes a trip to the urgent care or ER before you need to make the trip. Check out the lists below to see what facility is the right option in an emergency.

Urgent care centers are for accidents and illnesses that require a physician or nurse practitioner’s attention, but not a trip to the emergency department. Common conditions and treatments provided at an urgent care center include:

  • Minor cuts, lacerations and burns
  • Muscle aches, strains and sprains
  • Splints and stitches
  • Colds, viruses and the flu
  • Stomach ailments and respiratory illnesses
  • Strep throat, ear infections, and allergic reactions
  • Flu and tetanus shots; physicals for work, camp, sports and drivers’ licenses
  • X-Ray, EKG and laboratory services

Urgent care centers provide an excellent quality of care for patients who need help for injuries and illnesses when most doctor's offices are typically closed. Main Line Health Urgent Care, with locations in BroomallExtonConcordville and Wynnewood, offers a variety of options for after-hours and emergency care and have hours on nights, weekends and holidays. Additionally, Main Line Health hospitals are in close proximity to these urgent care locations, which allows patients to be easily transferred to the emergency department in the event that they require a higher level of care.

Emergency departments are for life-threatening conditions and symptoms like:

  • Heart attack
  • Major trauma
  • Numbness in the face, arm or leg
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Coughing or vomiting blood
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Uncontrolled or excessive bleeding
  • Severe headache or burns
  • Poisoning
  • Behavioral emergencies, such as suicidal or homicidal feelings

While urgent care centers and emergency departments provide different levels of care, don't take too long in deciding which one you should go to. While many people's first thought is to head to the emergency room, what you should do is head to whatever facility is closest. And if you're experiencing symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, or any of the other symptoms listed above, call 911 to be transported.

"The most important thing to remember is to not delay your care," says Aaron Giltner, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Paoli Hospital, part of Main Line Health. "Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a notable increase in emergency department visits for health issues that require emergency care, like stroke and heart attack."

In July 2020, Main Line Health partnered with the American Heart Association of Philadelphia to create a public awareness campaign called, “Don’t Die of Doubt.” The campaign urged people to call 9-1-1 and seek emergency medical care at the hospital if they are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or a stroke. 

"Even in a pandemic, the safest place you can be in the event of a medical emergency is a hospital. Issues like stroke and heart attack require timely care, which is why it is so important to seek emergency medical care as soon as you experience symptoms," says Dr. Giltner.

If your symptoms turn out to be a result of something else, that's okay, says Dr. Giltner. It's always better to seek care and not need it than to not seek it at all.

Main Line Health is home to four emergency departments at Lankenau Medical Center, Bryn Mawr Hospital, Paoli Hospital and Riddle Hospital

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.