Urgent care, primary care or online visit: Understand your options

Understanding the differences between virtual care, urgent care, primary care and emergency care can help you make the decision that’s right for you and your family. 

As consumers, we’ve become accustomed to really convenient service. We can preorder and pick up our groceries, get food delivered from our favorite restaurants, and shop for a product online and have it the next day (sometimes the same day!).

Increasingly, health care providers are offering consumers equally convenient service for their health needs. With so many options — virtual care, urgent care, primary care and emergency care — it’s not always easy to know where to go. Understanding these options can help you make the decision that’s right for you and your family, in predictable and unpredictable moments.

Primary care providers

A primary care provider is where you go for routine care and to establish a personal relationship with your provider. You see your primary care provider for illness, tests and screenings, and to manage chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes. You might see your primary care provider for vaccinations for yourself or your children. Your primary care provider navigates you through health challenges, referring you to specialists when needed. Appointments with your primary care provider are usually made in advance, although more practices are offering same-day appointments, and most offices will see you quickly for illness or injury.

Urgent care centers

Hopefully you have a great relationship with your primary care provider and see him or her regularly. Sometimes, an urgent illness or injury occurs when the office is closed. Urgent care centers, also commonly called immediate care centers, can be a good option when seeing a doctor cannot wait. Urgent care provides a number of convenient benefits: extended hours, same-day and weekend appointments and online scheduling. Urgent care centers have on-site X-ray equipment and labs, so you can get a high level of acute care without going to the emergency room. The goal for a visit to an urgent or immediate care center is to get well, and these centers often see patients for sore throat; respiratory, ear and sinus infections; fever; bronchitis; flu and sprains.

Online visits

Online visits are a newer health care option, and their popularity is growing. Commonly called a virtual visit or eVisit, online visits allow you to communicate with a health care provider through a mobile device or computer. Online visits may include a face-to-face video call, live chat or questionnaire. You can participate in an online visit with a health care provider from work, home or any time you can’t get to your primary care provider. This option is best for nonurgent conditions and minor symptoms such as cough, diarrhea, pinkeye, sinus problems, yeast infections or urinary tract infections. During an online visit, the provider may give you a treatment plan, prescribe medications or recommend that you see a provider in person.

Emergency care

Emergency departments are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and have the experts and equipment to treat complex, emergency, urgent and life-threatening conditions. You’ll want to call 911 or visit your nearest emergency department if you or your family members experience medical emergency symptoms, including:

  • chest pain or pressure
  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • unresponsive, confused or weak
  • allergic reaction with trouble breathing
  • severe abdominal pain
  • severe headache
  • injury with loss of consciousness or bleeding that won’t stop
  • sudden change in speech, numbness or sudden change in vision
  • suicidal thoughts

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Continuous care

Some health care providers offer an additional convenience: access to an online health portal.

An online portal gives patients more control over their health and allows them to take actions such as:

  • access medical records
  • view test results
  • track health over time
  • schedule appointments
  • receive reminders for follow-ups, tests, etc.
  • contact your provider

With convenient health care options and access to an online portal, you and your providers can actively manage your health, no matter which care option you choose.


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