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When Should You Call Your Primary Care Provider vs. Seek Emergency Care?

Contributor: Vlasta Zdrnja, MD
5 minute read
A person sits inside looking ill

When you aren’t feeling well, you can trust your primary care provider (PCP) to guide you to the best care for your needs. Vlasta Zdrnja, MD, an internal medicine doctor with Mass General Brigham Integrated Care, discusses the common health conditions PCPs treat. She also describes when a health concern is more serious and warrants a trip to urgent care or an emergency department for more timely evaluation.

Trust your instincts. If you think you or loved one has a life-threatening condition, time is of the essence. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.

Your PCP is the best option to treat you because they know you and your medical history. They can help you over the phone, or recommend urgent care if that’s what you need.

Vlasta Zdrnja, MD
Internal Medicine Doctor
Mass General Brigham

When should I contact my PCP’s office?

For less urgent health concerns, like skin rashes, insect bites, minor injuries including sprains, or urinary tract infections, Dr. Zdrnja recommends that patients contact their PCP’s office for advice.

“Your PCP is the best option to treat you because they know you and your medical history. They can help you over the phone, or recommend urgent care if that’s what you need. Even with an acute visit, it’s important to have somebody who knows you take care of you,” says Dr. Zdrnja.

Your PCP’s office may set aside a certain amount of appointments each day for urgent complaints. You might be seen by your PCP or another PCP, including a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant.

“We are so fortunate to work in this model of a team approach to coordinated care. It gives you the opportunity to be seen more quickly, and also the opportunity for your PCP’s team to get to know you better as a patient,” Dr. Zdrnja says.

Your care also will be navigated by other team members, including nurses, behavioral health providers, social workers, and pharmacists. This team will help you communicate with other specialists, and help transition you to or from hospital admission if needed.

Depending on your situation, Virtual Urgent Care is another option to receive care quickly, from the comfort of home. They offer both on-demand and scheduled appointments for additional flexibility.

How can my PCP help me with common health concerns?

“Your PCP is there for you, not just when you are sick, but to support you in so many other ways,” says Dr. Zdrnja.

An annual wellness exam can include the following:

  • An overall well-being review
  • Blood pressure monitoring
  • Lifestyle counseling on nutrition and exercise
  • Referrals to specialists if needed, such as cardiologists, endocrinologists, and gastroenterologists
  • Help with stopping smoking, including medication support
  • Skin checks that can complement a more thorough dermatology exam
  • Pap smears (for women)
  • Support for behavioral health in case of some life stressors or social issues, such as care at home and transportation to appointments
  • Recommendations for preventive health screenings

“The annual exam is a really thorough exam, where we look at you as a whole person. Many times we have patients coming for an acute visit with focus just on one thing, but when you come for your physical, that's the opportunity for you and your provider to address general concerns like preventive screenings, nutrition and weight management, exercise, or stopping smoking,” says Dr. Zdrnja.

What if I have a chronic condition?

Even if you have a chronic condition that requires specialist care, your PCP will be at the center of your care team. “The majority of my visits with patients are to follow up on chronic conditions. A lot of patients may not see their specialists as often as their PCP, and your primary care doctor who knows you well is more likely to detect any subtle changes in your condition,” Dr. Zdrnja explains. “You want to continue to see your PCP to fine-tune all your chronic issues.”

When should I go to an emergency department?

If you think you’re having a health emergency, trust your instincts. When in doubt, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.

But what, exactly, is a medical emergency?

“Some symptoms can be quite urgent and require emergency care or calling an ambulance,” says Dr. Zdrnja. Signs and symptoms of some health emergencies include:

  • Sudden onset of chest pain or shortness of breath, or worsening shortness of breath
  • Abdominal pain with nausea, vomiting, or fever
  • A severe headache or head injury with loss of consciousness
  • Numbness or weakness in your face or limbs
  • Severe injuries, like a wound with uncontrollable bleeding or significant pain after injury that could be result of a broken bone

Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics respond to emergency calls, provide care onsite, and transport patients to the hospital if needed. Health care providers who work in emergency departments treat emergencies and can do additional testing, like bloodwork or x-rays.

Learn about Mass General Brigham Integrated Care

Headshot of Vlasta Zdrnja, MD


Vlasta Zdrnja, MD
Internal Medicine Doctor