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Emergency Department or Urgent Care: Making an Informed Decision

Gebhart HSMark E. Gebhart, M.D., FAAEM, is an emergency medicine specialist at Atrium Medical Center in Middletown.

Q. If I’m sick or injured after my doctor’s office hours, should I go to an urgent care center or the emergency department? When would I need a trauma center?

A. It’s Saturday afternoon and you thought it would be a good idea to catch up on some projects around the house. While working on the new deck you’ve promised to finish for weeks, you took a misstep and a nail went right through your boot and into your foot. You quickly slip your boot off and notice there’s a small amount of bleeding, and your foot hurts around the spot where the nail entered. You’ve heard that you could get an infection from just such an injury. You decide to seek immediate care.

This is an all too common scenario. As a patient, you’re unsure about the right option for care. Do you go to the Emergency Department or perhaps the local urgent care? Making that kind of choice during an emergency can be tough.

When an accident or illness happens, here are some guidelines to help you make the right decision about where you should go for medical care.

Generally, anyone who complains of chest pain, shortness of breath, severe bleeding, loss of consciousness, sudden loss of vision/blurred vision or weakness needs to be seen in a hospital emergency department immediately. You have the option of being transported by local emergency medical services or by car. If you think you or someone else needs immediate attention, don’t waste time. Call 9-1-1 immediately.

If you feel your situation is less urgent and might be caused by a minor condition, you may choose an urgent care center. These conditions may be appropriate for urgent care: minor burns, sprains and strains, coughs, colds, sore throats, ear infections, flu-like symptoms, skin rashes and mild asthma.

At this region’s hospital, Atrium Medical Center offers both types of care in one location. The Emergency Trauma Center treats serious illnesses and injuries with all the resources of a fully staffed and equipped emergency department. The center also maintains an area designed to treat minor injuries and illnesses.

All patients presenting to Atrium’s Emergency Trauma Center are first seen by highly trained and qualified registered nurses who will take the time to ensure you receive the level of care most beneficial for you. If you present with a serious or life-threatening emergency, you will be directed to the main emergency department for immediate treatment. If your condition doesn’t require this level of care, you will be directed to the Select Care Center. Every effort will be made to expertly and quickly address your condition, treat you and get you quickly discharged home.

If you’ve sustained a traumatic injury, a trauma center, such as Atrium Medical Center, has the resources to start treatment quickly and get you the specialized care you need. Traumatic injuries can result in loss of life or limb, permanent disfigurement or disability. They can be caused by a blunt or penetrating injury, such as a gunshot wound, stabbing or a fall; exposure to electromagnetic, chemical or radioactive energy; drowning, suffocation or strangulation; overheating or being too cold; or motor vehicle accidents.

All trauma centers are emergency departments, but not all emergency departments are trauma centers. Trauma centers treat patients with routine emergencies plus those with traumatic injuries. The American College of Surgeons uses a rigorous review process to designate trauma centers nationwide.

Trauma centers have specialized surgeons immediately available, plus other staff and equipment needed to care for severely injured patients 24 hours a day. When Emergency Medical Services crews arrive with a trauma case, a physician, multiple nurses and support staff are automatically called to the trauma room to evaluate and treat the patient.

Trauma centers are designated at three levels. A Level I center has the most extensive capabilities for specialized surgery. Depending on the severity of the injury, the trauma patient may stay at the initial hospital for ongoing care and possibly rehabilitation, or may be transferred to a hospital with additional services. All trauma centers, regardless of their level, can provide rapid assessment, resuscitation, initiation of appropriate treatment and ongoing care.

This information is for educational purposes only. Please talk to your physician for advice in all matters related to your health.

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