Q: When I’m sick but can’t get to my doctor, should I go to the emergency room or urgent care?

A: Emergency departments and urgent-care centers play important roles in providing immediate, unscheduled health-care services. However, their roles are different, and knowing their differences ensures that the community receives appropriate care as quickly as possible in the proper setting.

A medical emergency is any change in health status requiring prompt attention and treatment. For minor complaints, the patient can reach out to a primary-care physician to discuss symptoms and determine whether an office or telehealth visit, urgent-care visit, or emergency department setting is the most advisable.

Emergency departments are open 24/7, 365 days a year and offer full suites of capabilities, including advanced laboratory testing and imaging technology.

Heart attacks, strokes, and major trauma are among the most serious reasons for emergency room visits. Emergency department doctors and nurses are prepared to provide immediate life-saving interventions, as well as testing to investigate and treat heart attack and stroke symptoms.

Urgent-care centers have more limited operating hours and provide more basic testing and treatment capabilities. Urgent-care centers are convenient and helpful for accommodating non-life-threatening conditions, such as rashes, earaches, urinary tract infections, minor injuries, and back pain. Urgent-care centers are usually not equipped for advanced diagnostic testing and imaging.

Generally speaking, call 911 or go directly to the emergency department for symptoms that could be life threatening, such as:

  • Chest pain.

  • Shortness of breath.

  • Slurred speech, weakness, change in mental status, dizziness or other signs of a stroke.

  • Severe abdominal or stomach pain.

  • Major trauma.

Emergency room staff are taking maximal precautions to keep patients safe during the pandemic. Physical distancing is ensured, and masks are required and available for patients if they do not bring their own. Staff also work to quickly identify those with COVID-like symptoms and isolate them in a designated area of the hospital.

Generally speaking, people are more at risk for complications from delayed treatment of legitimate health emergencies than they would be for contracting COVID-19 inside an emergency room with proper precautions.

Anthony Mazzeo is a physician and chair of emergency medicine and regional medical director for Mercy Catholic Medical Center and Nazareth Hospital.