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Where to go (and who to call) when you need help quickly 

Where to go (and who to call) when you need help quickly 

If you’re not feeling your best, you might wonder where to go to get the fastest care. Here’s what you need to know.

You can get confused when you’re trying to figure out where to go or who to call when an unexpected illness or accident happens. There seems to be more choices than ever these days. 

You can call your doctor, who may be able to see you either in person or virtually. There’s also the local urgent care. And there’s even the emergency room (ER) at your local hospital. 

But depending on how you’re feeling, not all of these choices make the most sense. For example, if you have severe chest pain, you should dial 911 or go to the nearest ER. But if you have a minor cut or think you have the flu, your doctor or an urgent care is a better choice.  

Learn how to choose one care option over another, to get the quickest (and best) care.

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Quick care option #1: Virtual care or telehealth 

Think of your primary care provider, or PCP, as the main person who manages your care. You might see them yearly or more regularly.  

“The most important relationship that you can have, to ensure you’re receiving the right care, is with your primary care provider,” says Stephanie Peterson, MD. She’s a chief medical officer at Optum. “Your primary care provider not only helps care for you when you’re ill or have an urgent need, but they can also ensure you’re getting preventive care, to keep from getting sick.” Your PCP also helps you manage many chronic conditions. 

While you can certainly schedule a visit with your PCP in person, a much quicker way may be through a virtual or telehealth visit if your doctor’s office offers this. Other members of your doctor’s care team, such as an on-call clinician or nurse practitioner, can also do telehealth appointments. During this virtual visit, they can help you with conditions or injuries that don’t need urgent or emergency attention. These can include:1  

  • Aches and pains 
  • Cold and flu symptoms 
  • Infections such as pink eye 
  • Rashes  
  • Uncomplicated urinary tract infections 

For example, if you have a cough and a runny nose, your doctor can give advice on how to feel better based on the symptoms you describe. 

“Your primary care provider is not only going to know you, but they’re also going to know the medications you’re taking and the specialists you’re seeing. They have a more intimate knowledge of your health care needs,” says Dr. Peterson.  

You can also consult them about ongoing physical or mental health conditions such as:1 

  • Arthritis 
  • Diabetes 
  • Back pain 
  • Depression 
  • Asthma 

It’s easy to get in touch with your PCP by emailing, texting or communicating with them through your online patient portal. Talk to your doctor’s office about whether those options are available to you. 

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Quick care option #2: Urgent care center 

Let’s say you twisted your ankle and you're hoping a doctor can look at it. You could certainly schedule a virtual call with your PCP, but if it happened after hours, that might not always be possible to do.  

Another option: going to an urgent care center. That’s a type of medical facility that you can visit when you need help right away for something that isn’t life-threatening. They also may be open longer and later than your doctor’s office, and can even be open on the weekends. (Check your local listings for the urgent care closest to you, and review your insurance plan to see which urgent cares are covered.) 

They’re especially helpful for issues such as:2 

  • Minor sprains and strains
  • Cold and flu symptoms
  • Minor cuts (some urgent care centers even stitch wounds) 
  • Upset stomach
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Urinary tract infections  

Quick care option #3: 24/7 nurse hotline 

If you wake up with a mild fever in the middle of the night, your doctor’s office will be closed and there might not be a doctor on call. And it might not be the best option to drive to an urgent care center in the middle of the night.  

That’s where a 24/7 nurse hotline can be helpful. (Check with your PCP or insurance company about whether this option is available.) That’s a number you can call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, where you can talk to a health care provider about a health issue. That can make it a great, quick resource for: 

  • When you need basic guidance on an illness or medical condition 
  • When you don’t know where to go for your illness or accident 

They can let you know what symptoms to monitor, and whether you can wait to see your PCP or go to an urgent care. They can even tell you whether it’s a good idea to go to an emergency room (more on that below).  

You can also call a nurse hotline to ask questions like: 

  • Do I need to see my doctor in person or can I see them virtually for this issue?  
  • Should I go to urgent care?  

“They can help you identify the level of care you need and where to go,” Dr. Peterson says. The provider can also help you locate an urgent care in your area.  

Quick care option #4: Emergency room  

If you’re having a life-threatening emergency, the ER or calling 911 is your best option, says Dr. Peterson. That generally applies to life-or-death situations or injuries that need immediate attention, including: 

  • Chest pain
  • Deep wounds 
  • Severe difficulty breathing  
  • Head trauma 
  • Severe allergic reactions 
  • Uncontrolled bleeding 
  • Compound fracture (broken bone that protrudes through skin)   

If you or someone you know can’t drive you to the ER, or if, for example, you are having chest pain or stroke symptoms, call 911.4, 5 That way, medical workers can help you in your house or on the way to the ER.

Which care option is best for me?  

Where you go for care depends on the situation. “Everything is on a spectrum,” Dr. Peterson says. “It depends on how much distress you’re in and the urgency of your need.”  

Don’t be afraid to follow your instincts. “Patients need to trust their gut,” she says. And remember that your Optum care team can help you plan for future scenarios — and guide you when something happens. 


  1. Cleveland Clinic. What to expect when you log on for a virtual doctor’s appointment. Published August 17, 2023. Accessed November 27, 2023.  
  2. Mayo Clinic Health System. Emergency vs. urgent care: What’s the difference? Published September 20, 2023. Accessed December 22, 2023. 
  3. OptumServe. Nurse lines and virtual visits: A complementary pair. Published 2020. Accessed November 27, 2023. 
  4. National Institutes of Health: MedlinePlus. When to use the emergency room — adult. Last reviewed July 25, 2022. Accessed November 27, 2023. 
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stroke signs and symptoms. Published May 4, 2022. Accessed November 27, 2023. 

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