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When should you seek emergency medical care?

The simple answer is, as quickly as possible whenever you are experiencing any symptoms of a medical emergency. Examples might include chest pain, shortness of breath, abdominal pain stroke symptoms, high fever, or dehydration.

Whether you have an emergency is determined based on the symptoms that bring you to the ER in the first place, not on your final diagnosis. The same symptoms can mean many medical conclusions and require an experienced physician (many times requiring specific testing) to determine if those symptoms represent a life-threatening issue or not. For example, one patient may present to the emergency department with severe abdominal pain and have appendicitis, but another with the same symptoms may have a stomach virus.

While urgent care centers have a role to play in the health care system, they are not substitutes for emergency care. Urgent care centers are very good at treating minor problems, but more serious problems require screening and treatment at an emergency department. Urgent care centers typically do not staff emergency medicine specialists, are not open 24 hours/day, do not have all modalities of imaging (such as ultrasound or CT), and do not have direct access to specialists.

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