Thursday, January 14, 2016

When Should You Go to the Emergency Room?

The way we access healthcare has changed quite a bit in the last two decades, and there are new options available for getting medical help when you get injured in an accident or if you become ill. I attended a talk recently by Dr. Michael Gutman, Medical Director of New England Urgent Care, and he shared important information about when to go to the emergency room and when you can seek out alternative urgent care options.

With the growing shortage of primary care physicians, and the available doctors getting busier every day, there’s a good chance that at some point your doctor’s office may tell you to go to the emergency room if they can’t see you right away. Or, you you might have symptoms that are more than what your doctor treats in the office. But, emergency rooms are meant to handle to the most serious health problems. Going there when you are experiencing a problem that is less acute can keep the most critical emergency patients from getting the quick care they need, and can cost you extra time, money, and hassle. 

Walk-in health clinics are popping up all over in communities around the country. Some of them offer a good alternative to going to an emergency room, except for certain very serious or life-threatening cases.

So, when should you go to the emergency room?

Dr. Gutman says you should call 911 when -

  • You think you are about to die*
  • Your breathing is so impaired you can’t talk in sentences
  • You are having chest pain that you think is a heart attack
  • You or your spouse think you are having a stroke
  • You have altered mental status
  • You used to be able to walk yesterday and today you can’t
  • You are injured and you can’t walk as a result

*This is not meant as a joke. Dr. Gutman is an experienced emergency physician with military experience in Iraq. He says that people with anxiety can have this feeling and it doesn’t mean death is imminent, but when an injured or ill person expresses they feel they are going to die, it is not a good sign. Get that person to an emergency room right away.

If the symptoms you are experiencing are not mentioned above, you are a good candidate for a walk-in urgent care clinic. An urgent care clinic differs from other walk-in clinics because it can handle more complicated emergency health issues. Where some clinics offer immunizations, strep tests, checking for ear infections, or treatment for cough, cold, flu, or minor injuries, urgent care clinics can do more. They can take x-rays to check for broken bones and do stitches on small lacerations, and may offer other services too. For example, New England Urgent Care does IV fluids, x-rays, and stitches on larger lacerations, because all their caregivers have at least two years of emergency room experience. They have lab facilities and rapid analysis through St. Francis Hospital, if necessary. They also have on-site pharmacies, and they can expedite your admission to the hospital if transfer to a hospital is deemed necessary.

Some of the benefits of going to a clinic rather than an ER are that the copays are usually the same as a doctor’s visit instead of an emergency room visit, the charges are much less, and there’s usually a short wait time before you are seen by a doctor, nurse, or physician’s assistant.

When my husband slipped and fell on the ice last year, he went to New England Urgent Care. He was taken in for x-rays within 20 minutes of our arrival. X-rays confirmed he had broken two ribs. The physician’s assistant gave him clear, written instructions for care. He left with a filled prescription for pain medication and instructions for follow-up. He was home resting in just about an hour and a half. And, we didn’t have a heart attack when we saw the bill. It was a great alternative to a hospital emergency room.

Check to see if there are any walk-in urgent care clinics in your community. Find out what services they offer, and if they would be a good alternative to the emergency room of your local hospital. It’s a good idea to check clinics out in advance, before you have an emergency such as an injury or illness. When that happens, you might not have the luxury of time to do the research.

Be prepared, and know which urgent care clinic or emergency facility is right for you.

New England Urgent Care has clinics in West Hartford, Simsbury, Bristol, and Enfield, Connecticut. Their website is

Michal Klau-Stevens is a professional speaker and healthcare consumer advocate. She is a maternity consultant, pregnancy coach, and expert on consumer healthcare care issues, Past President of BirthNetwork National, a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and mother.  Her website is TheBirthLady.INFO. Find her on LinkedIn and on Facebook at The Birth Lady page!


  1. All helpful information for us to have when the question suddenly arises. Those seven points could be taped to the refrigerator.