ER or PCP: When to Use the Emergency Room?

When to Use the Emergency Room?

By Jeff Johnson, MD

The ER isn’t always the best choice when you have an illness? Take time to think about where you get Dr. Jeff Johnsonmedical treatment.  

When you’re not feeling well or you’re hurt, it’s important to decide where you should seek medical treatment. Should I call my healthcare provider or should I go to the emergency room? Thinking about where you go can save you time and money—and get you the best care.

When is an “emergency” really an “emergency”?

How quickly do you need care? If your illness or injury is life threatening, you should call 911 immediately. If someone has stopped breathing, is choking, has a severe burn, head or neck injury, or is bleeding a lot, call 911 for medical assistance. An ambulance will come to you to provide on-site help or take you to the emergency room.

When should I go to the emergency room?

If your illness is serious and you can’t wait to see your PCP, go to the emergency room. Conditions that should be treated at an ER include:

  • Deep cut or wound
  • Broken bones
  • Chest pain or heart palpitations
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe stomach or belly pain
  • Severe headache
  • Vision loss or eye injury
  • Sudden weakness, paralysis, or slurred speech
  • Bad confusion, changed mental state, or thoughts of hurting oneself
  • Smoke inhalation or poison exposure
  • Seizures or loss of consciousness
  • Drug overdose

When should I go see my primary care provider (PCP)?

For any illness or minor injury, call your PCP. Your PCP will determine how serious the condition is and if you can arrange a same-day appointment. Your PCP office is available by phone 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. (Weeks also now offers walk-in care on Saturday morning.) Seeing your PCP also provides you with continuity of care that can be overlooked in the ER. Your PCP knows your medical history and is familiar with your health concerns and medications. Contact your PCP, and not the ER, for the following:

  • Common illnesses such as cold, flu, ear infection, sore throat, migraine, low-grade fever, minor rash, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Minor injuries such as sprain, back pain, minor cuts and burns, minor broken bones, or minor eye injuries

Isn’t it easier to just go to the ER?

No. The ER should be reserved for serious medical concerns and life-threatening conditions. Minor illnesses can clog up the ER and create longer waiting times. Visits to the ER are also very expensive. You will pay two to three times more by going to the ER rather than your PCP. Many insurance companies also have special restrictions about ER use. However, it is always your choice to go to the ER.

What if I’m not sure where to go?

Calling your PCP will help you make the best choice on where to go and possibly save you money. If your illness is not life threatening, call your primary care provider. You’ll be asked about the symptoms and your PCP can then advise you to go to the ER or not. You may also receive information on how to self treat the illness. If there is any serious doubt, always call 911. The ER cannot help you over the phone.

The ER at Weeks Medical Center is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. PCP appointments are available Monday through Friday by appointment. Same day appointments are generally available if you call before noon. A new Saturday Acute Care Clinic offers walk-in care with or without an appointment from 9am to 1pm. For more information, or to make an appointment with your primary care provider, please call 603-788-5095.


Jeff Johnson is an emergency room physician at Weeks Medical Center in Lancaster, NH.