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Do I Need Primary Care or Emergency Care? Here’s How to Decide.


139 million visits to the emergency department. That, according to the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the sheer volume that America’s hospitals are facing in their emergency department every year.

Although a hospital should be equipped and staffed to handle the unique needs of the community in which it serves, the reality is that overuse of emergency departments can add stress to a local healthcare system. This can lead to extended wait times at the hospital, which can ultimately result in added discomfort and concern for patients and visitors.

As for the financial stress it can put on the patients themselves? That’s no small thing, either. In fact, the average cost of an emergency department visit in America is nearly $1,400, according to the latest data from the Health Care Cost Institute.

Make no mistake, a hospital is there to serve the community, and there are always going to be situations that warrant a visit to the emergency department; however, there may be opportunities for you to help ease the strain on your local healthcare providers — and your wallet — if you understand what types of conditions or ailments are better left to a primary care provider.

So, when should you make a visit to the emergency department instead of a primary care doctor? First and foremost, if you’re ever in doubt about where you should go, call 911. But for everything else, we recommend following these guidelines:

When to Visit the Emergency Department

Life-threatening emergencies — whether they’re illnesses or injuries — should always be handled at the hospital. Here are a few of the conditions that always require a trip to the emergency department:

  • Abdominal or chest pain
  • Babies needing immediate care
  • Eye or head injuries
  • Severe burns
  • Stroke symptoms (numbness, slurred speech, paralysis, etc.)
  • Difficulty breathing (for symptoms consistent with COVID-19, please call ahead of time for guidance)
  • High fevers
  • Suspected drug overdose or poisoning
  • Heart palpitations or heart attack symptoms, including:

    • Chest pain or discomfort
    • Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint
    • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back
    • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders
    • Shortness of breath


When to Visit Your Primary Care Doctor

Sometimes, illness and other conditions don’t require immediate medical attention but do require the input and expertise of a physician or certified nurse practitioner. Here are just a few of the reasons why you might want to visit your local primary care doctor’s office instead of the emergency department:

  • Cold and flu symptoms (for symptoms consistent with COVID-19, please call your primary care doctor ahead of time for guidance)
  • Sinus infection or headache
  • Mild fevers
  • Upset stomach or diarrhea
  • Minor injuries
  • Chronic health issues
  • Disease prevention and dietary guidance
  • Regular checkups and physicals
  • Flu shots and other immunizations

Have a more immediate need, such as a broken bone, sprain, allergic reaction, minor burn, pink eye, or animal/insect bite? You may want to consider visiting an urgent care facility instead. It’s worth noting, however, that many primary care providers are able to offer same-day or next-day appointments, so you might not have to wait several days or weeks to get the care you need. 

Where You Can Find Emergency Care and Primary Care in Charles County

If you live in Charles County, you have a wide range of health services at your fingertips, and you have a choice between the emergency department and the doctor’s office should you ever need care.

As always, the emergency department at University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center is open and staffed by physicians, physician assistants, nurses, and technicians 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

And for those situations that don’t require emergency care? You can find University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Group (UM CRMG) – Primary Care conveniently located at the Medical Pavilion in La Plata. Led by Dr. Lorenzo Childress, this practice’s team can diagnose and treat an array of conditions as well as provide preventive care that can help you live well year-round. To learn more about UM CRMG – Primary Care or to schedule an appointment, please call (301) 609-5044.

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