When to Use Primary Care, a Walk-in Clinic, or the Emergency Department

Providence St. Patrick Hospital
12:54 PM, Aug 02, 2019
7:57 AM, Aug 05, 2019

When you have an illness or injury, it’s often difficult to know where you should go — to your primary care provider, a walk-in clinic or the emergency department at the hospital.

You want to have your health issue addressed, but you don’t want to tax the health care system or wait longer, or pay more than is necessary.

A good guide is to use the emergency department only for life-threatening or limb-threatening conditions. The most highly trained staff and the latest technology are available at the hospital.

Otherwise, visit your primary care physician if they are open and have the time to see you. If you they’re not available, or you can’t wait for an appointment, go to the walk-in clinic nearest you.

Here is a more in-depth guide to each:

1. Primary Care

Your primary care provider should be your main point of contact for checkups, management of chronic conditions, and preventive care. This provider and their staff know you, keep records of your care and track your health.

Your primary care provider should be your first stop for health care in non-emergency situations. If it’s urgent, and you can’t see your primary care provider because they’re busy or closed, then you should consider a walk-in clinic.

2. Walk-In Clinic

When you need care quickly for illnesses or injuries that aren’t life-threatening, the walk-in clinic is often a wise choice. “There’s a primary care shortage in Montana so sometimes it’s difficult to get into your primary care provider,” says Dr. Phil Haggerty, medical director of the Grant Creek Walk-in Care Clinic. “Urgent care provides convenient access to a provider if you feel that something needs to be addressed right away.”

Clinics like his are prepared to handle a wide range of conditions. “We treat colds, minor lacerations, minor joint injuries, mild COPD exacerbations, mild asthma exacerbations, upper respiratory infections, rashes, and minor skin lesions,” he says.

Patients with injuries that aren’t life- or limb-threatening can often get seen faster at walk-in clinics. At Grant Creek and many other urgent care facilities, no appointments are necessary and the clinic is open on weekends and weeknights. They also have x-rays and other diagnostic equipment for common illnesses and injuries.

3. Emergency Department

When life or limb is at stake, go to the Emergency Department. “The Emergency Department is staffed 24 hours-a-day seven-days-a-week with a highly trained team to handle life-threatening emergencies,” says Dr. Dan Pierce, an emergency medicine physician at Providence St. Patrick Hospital. “If you feel you are having a heart attack, might be having a stroke, having a hard time breathing, experiencing severe abdominal pain, or you’ve been in an accident — those are all good reasons to go to the Emergency Department.”

Patients are triaged in the Emergency Department, so people with more serious conditions are seen first. For those who visit without life- or limb-threatening issues, there may be a long wait. They would be better served at an urgent care facility.

Providence St. Patrick Hospital wants everyone in Missoula to get the right care in the right place at the right time. Home to some of the northern Rocky Mountain region's most advanced health care since 1873, Providence St. Patrick Hospital is committed to you. For more information, call 406-329-5668 or visit Montana.Providence.org/locations-directory/s/st-patrick-hospital.

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