Know the difference: Medical emergency vs. medical attention

Life happens. You sprain your ankle playing soccer with friends. Your partner slices a finger on a kitchen knife. Your child runs a high fever. In the moment, and sometimes under stressful conditions, it can be hard to make that quick decision whether to head for the emergency room (ER) or to stop in to an urgent care center in your neighborhood.

It’s good to know in advance what a true medical emergency is vs. what can be handled at an urgent care location.

If you believe you have a life-threatening emergency or need emergency care, call 911 now.

When you should use urgent care

Needing urgent care is not the same as needing emergency medical attention. Urgent care is an option when you have an immediate need but cannot get in to see your primary care doctor on the same day. Examples of when you might need urgent care include:

  • Having a high fever (but no rash)
  • Having ear pain
  • Having pain when urinating
  • Having the flu or flu-like symptoms
  • Having an infection

You can also head to an urgent care center when you’re having an allergic skin reaction or you’ve got a shallow cut that needs more than a Band-Aid. Urgent care centers also help with a sprained wrist or ankle, and can even check for fracture (many have on-site X-ray capabilities). If you have a broken limb showing through the skin, however, you must get to the emergency room right away.

You can also use urgent care when you already know the diagnosis, such as you’re having recognizable symptoms associated with a familiar condition, like a urinary tract infection.

Urgent care centers are located at:

We also offer extended outpatient care in Wynnewood, for patients needing medical tests, treatments and services not available at your doctor’s office or our urgent care locations.

When you should use the emergency room

Many of us tend to downplay symptoms and may even want to avoid “making a fuss” when in fact we need emergency attention. If you are experiencing any of the following situations, do not wait it out. Waiting could cost you—a lost limb, loss of vision, worsening of your condition, increased risk of infection, damage to your brain and any number of reasons to get yourself to an ER right away.

  • Sudden loss of balance or fainting
  • Sudden difficulty speaking or comprehending
  • Sudden extreme pain, especially in the abdomen
  • Sudden change in vision
  • Testicular pain

You should also get to the ER when you have:

Other reasons to go to the ER include:

  • A deep cut that needs stitches
  • A high fever that’s accompanied by a rash
  • Serious burns
  • Traumatic injury from a car accident
  • Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy

Seizures, broken limbs that break the skin, vomiting or diarrhea that is persistent (won’t stop and lasts for long period of time) are also good reasons to get to an emergency room. ER personnel often say they’d rather people come in and be seen and find out it’s not an emergency rather than not come in and find out they should’ve been in the ER all along.

Main Line Health has emergency rooms at all four of its acute care hospitals:

What you don’t need urgent care for

Keep in mind that your primary care doctor is the first person to turn to for ongoing care and oversight of your health. That means your usual health screenings, such as mammograms and care for chronic conditions like diabetes, are prescribed and directed by your primary care physician. An urgent care center does not provide blood pressure and cholesterol screenings, immunizations, and prescription refills. Turn to your own doctor for these.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.