Today your options for where to get your medical care are greater than ever before. You may not even have to leave your home to get the care you want and need. You can choose based on what your health problem is and what works best for you. And you don't have to use one option for all your health care needs. You can choose where to seek care based on what will work best for you in that instance.
When you have a serious problem that needs care right away, an emergency room (ER) is the best place to go. ERs are set up to handle problems that may be life-threatening. And ER staff are skilled at providing care that can save lives. Emergencies include problems such as:
- Heart attack or stroke symptoms.
- Severe bleeding.
- Severe trouble breathing.
- Severe pain.
If you don't think you need emergency care, you can consider what is most important to you on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, convenience and speed might drive your decision. In other cases, the cost of care matters most. And in some cases, you may believe it's better to see a health professional who knows you and your history.
Your primary care provider has the advantage of knowing your health and medicine history. He or she may know about your health habits, such as diet and exercise. Your doctor often knows your home, work, and family situation. But the office location or hours may not always work for you. And your doctor may not provide care for something urgent like broken bones or stitches.
After you decide what is most important to you, you can choose your care option. The number of choices varies by community. But there are more and more options available in health care, including urgent care clinics, retail clinics, and virtual care.
What care is available at urgent care and retail clinics?
Urgent care clinics are usually able to provide care for problems like sprains, burns, and broken bones. They also do X-ray tests, throat cultures, and routine health care, such as sports physicals and shots. These clinics often can be found in neighborhoods and near shopping areas. You may be able to just walk in to see someone, or you may be able to set up an appointment online. Care at an urgent care clinic usually will cost less than at an ER.
Retail clinics are often in drugstores or supermarkets. These clinics can handle less serious problems like urinary tract infections and minor cuts. They also do health screenings and flu shots. You can usually just walk in or set up an appointment online. Retail clinics can cost less than ERs, urgent care clinics, or your primary doctor.
Urgent care and retail clinics can be a great option if you can't or don't want to wait to see your own doctor. They can also be a good option if you don't think you need the level of care an ER provides. With an urgent care or retail clinic, you likely will see a health professional you haven't seen before.
What services are available through virtual medical care?
Virtual care is care delivered through your smartphone, computer, or tablet. Your primary doctor may have an online network where you can ask questions, set up appointments, refill prescriptions, and get test results. Some urgent care and retail clinics offer virtual care too.
You may be able to avoid an in-person appointment for:
- Common problems like a urinary tract infection.
- Prescription refills.
- Follow-up care for ongoing conditions like high blood pressure.
In some states, you can talk with a doctor on a video call. This is called telehealth. It can be a convenient way to get medical advice or treatment. Some insurers may provide access to telehealth. But it can only be used for help with problems that aren't serious, such as a sore throat or pinkeye.
Virtual care doesn't work for severe problems. But for less serious problems, it may cost less and be faster than in-person clinic visits.
Current as of: October 6, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine