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When to Call 911, Your Healthcare Provider, or the Hospital

When a medical emergency happens, it's not always easy to think clearly. But a crisis means that you need to act quickly. Knowing about your choices in healthcare will help you when an emergency does happen.

When you need immediate medical help, you have 2 choices. You can call the 911 emergency number or you can go to a hospital emergency room. If you are not sure, you can call your healthcare provider for advice. If it is urgent but not an emergency, you can seek help at an urgent care center. Here's a look at which choice is best.

When to call 911

The 911 emergency number or your community's local emergency number is for true emergencies. An emergency threatens a person's life, limbs, or sense organs. Examples are heart attacks, strokes, breathing problems, head and neck injuries, severe bleeding, and eye injuries.

You can also call 911 when you are not physically able to drive the person to the hospital, and the person has a condition that is growing worse.

When you call 911, an ambulance is sent with people trained in life support. The patient is taken to a hospital for emergency care. One reason to avoid using 911 if it's not needed is the cost. The patient or his or her insurance company will be billed for the ambulance, the hospital, and the healthcare provider's services. The best reason to use 911 only in a serious emergency is so that the emergency services personnel are free to help a person having an emergency that is truly life-threatening.

When to go to a hospital

Healthcare providers who specialize in emergency medicine see just about everything, from real emergencies to people who come in for minor problems because they have nowhere else to go. But hospital emergency treatment is expensive because it is available 24 hours every day and has high overhead costs.

So, when is it right to go to a hospital? If you feel a person needs immediate attention and a primary care healthcare provider isn't available, then emergency care may be the best choice. Remember that emergency care is not first come, first served. Patients in the emergency room are treated according to the seriousness of their conditions.

When to call your healthcare provider

If you think a person needs medical treatment, but you don't think it is an emergency, try calling your healthcare provider for advice. Do this only if you have the time and the healthcare provider is immediately available. If not, then you should call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. Your healthcare provider can tell you whether your situation is an actual emergency.

If there is time to spare, then you should see your healthcare provider first. Remember, a healthcare provider's visit won't be as expensive as a hospital's emergency treatment. And it won't tie up vital emergency medical services. The healthcare provider may also decide that the condition can be treated in his or her office or at home. This saves your time and the hospital’s time, and reduces overall health costs.

Urgent care centers

These are walk-in medical centers with healthcare providers on staff. They offer an alternative when there isn't an emergency and you can’t get to your personal healthcare provider. They are generally more expensive than seeing your own healthcare provider, but less expensive than an emergency room visit. The center usually can offer simple lab tests.

Online Medical Reviewer: Duldner, John E., MD, MS
Date Last Reviewed: 9/3/2015
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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