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Emergency vs. Non-Emergency Medical Care

Medically reviewed by Til Jolly, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 7, 2023

We see the words “seek medical attention” on labeling everywhere. Cleaning products, food and beverage supplies, sporting goods, and more all bear the same instruction as to what to do if something goes wrong. Dialing emergency services is a simple enough operation, made easier than ever before by the fact that we all now carry a phone, but how do you know when it’s really an emergency?  You don’t want to take up the time and other resources of an ambulance or other emergency personnel with something that’s not critical. Here are some tips to help you make the right decision when the need arises. 


If you have any questions on whether to call an ambulance or go to the emergency room, you may be able to call an emergency telehealth line. Describe the situation and follow the instructions you are given. Check with your local hospital to see if they have this service available.


When to call an ambulance/go to the emergency room


Most of the time, you’ll know when it’s really an emergency. Trust your judgment to know if someone needs immediate help. Anything that needs to be dealt with immediately to prevent serious permanent harm to the patient justifies a call for an ambulance. Examples are suspected heart attack, suspected stroke, severed limbs, heavy uncontrolled bleeding, suspected poisoning, possible internal bleeding, severe burns, electrical shocks, severe allergic reactions, severe diabetic reaction, choking, uncontrolled seizure, sudden severe headache, suspected overdose, or uncontrollable suicidal thoughts. Loss of consciousness, difficulty breathing, and extreme pain are similar indicators that an ambulance might be the best bet for the patient. Usually, it’s faster for an ambulance to come to take someone to the emergency room. Additionally, the emergency team can provide help onsite before even getting to the hospital.


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Emergency Room - Preparation

Emergency Room - Preparation

When to go to an urgent care center


If the patient can continue functioning for the time it would take for them to be driven to an urgent care center, then their condition most likely does not need emergency services. Examples are cuts that will need stitches but can be controlled with pressure, minor allergic or diabetic reactions, suspected broken bone, high fever, or uncontrollable diarrhea. If you go to an urgent care center, you will be sent or taken to the ER if necessary. And, of course, if the urgent care center is closed, you may need to drive the patient to the emergency room in these situations.


Non-emergency medicine


If your concern is not immediately life-threatening, it is likely safe to categorize it as a non-emergency. In these cases, you should not use an emergency system, as it creates additional backlog that can shut out people with more serious concerns. Trust yourself to know if something is immediately life threatening. If you have questions, call a telehealth hotline and follow the instructions you are given. An urgent care center can be a good alternative to emergency services.

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