Across the country, hospital emergency rooms (also known as emergency departments) are seeing record numbers of patient visits. UC Davis Medical Center is no exception with a record 313 patients in the Emergency Department on a single day in May 2023.

The high volume of patients in emergency departments can lead to long wait times. It can also affect the care of people who have life-threatening medical emergencies.

In Sacramento, there’s been a huge jump in patients being taken to emergency departments by ambulance. Many don’t require admission to the hospital after their emergency room (ER) visit. That has led ambulances to wait – sometimes as long as 8 hours – at the hospital before they can transfer non-emergency patients from a gurney to the hospital staff.

By reducing non-emergency 911 calls, the community can help people who are having life-threatening emergencies.

But how do you know if you really need to go to the ER, or if you can go to an urgent care or a doctor's office instead?

Here's a breakdown to help you get the best treatment for your needs.

When to go to the emergency room (ER)

Each illness or injury is different. It's important to figure out how serious your situation is. If the injury or illness is life-threatening or could cause permanent disability, go to the ER.

The emergency department is where you will get care for severe illnesses and injuries. If it's a life-threatening emergency, call 911 so first responders can provide care right away. Emergency departments are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Some symptoms or health issues that may need an ER visit include:

  • Chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • Weakness or numbness on one side of the body
  • Slurred speech
  • Vision problems, such as double vision or loss of vision
  • Severe dizziness
  • Broken bones or dislocated joints
  • Head injuries, loss of consciousness, fainting, confusion, or seizures
  • Burns with blisters
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Uncontrolled bleeding
  • Larger cuts that may require stitches
  • Fever over 103 degrees or fever with a rash
  • Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
  • Poisoning
  • Mental health crisis

Wait times for the ER can be quite long, depending on the severity of your symptoms and the number of other patients waiting.

It's important to note that arriving to the emergency department by ambulance does not get you seen more quickly. The ER treats people based on the severity of their condition, no matter how they arrive. Arriving by ambulance does not mean you'll have a shorter waiting time for care in the ER.

If you believe you're having an emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department. Depending on your health insurance plan, ER visits often require a copay (similar to urgent care centers and clinics), and sometimes other fees. Because the level of care is more complex, copays for ER visits are usually more than for urgent care visits. Additional fees may be incurred if you're taken to the ER by ambulance.

Learn more about when to call 911 and the serious symptoms to never ignore

Read about getting the right care from right place at the right time (Hospital Council of Northern and Central California)

When to go to urgent care or a walk-in clinic

Urgent care may be helpful if an injury or illness isn't as severe, but a same-day appointment is needed. Many urgent care and walk-in clinics are available during times when your primary care clinic may be closed. This includes early mornings, evenings, weekends and holidays.

Some symptoms that may prompt a same-day visit to urgent care include:

  • Wheezing or mild shortness of breath
  • Sprains or strains
  • Minor burns without blisters
  • Small cuts that may need stitches
  • Fever without a rash
  • Flu symptoms, sore throat, or ear pain
  • Eye discharge
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Painful urination
  • Animal or insect bite
  • Minor allergic reactions

Urgent care wait times are typically shorter than ER wait times. Copays at urgent care clinics are usually about the same or slightly higher than primary care.

When to schedule a primary care or telehealth visit

It's best to make an appointment with your primary care provider for non-urgent health needs. Many health care organizations, including UC Davis Health, offer telehealth appointments. These can sometimes be same-day or next-day appointments. Telehealth also allows you to stay at home instead of going to a clinic.

Some symptoms or health concerns that can wait for a primary care visit include:

  • Earache
  • Cold and flu symptoms like cough, congestion, or sore throat
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Pink eye
  • Minor cuts and burns
  • Non-life-threatening allergies
  • Respiratory infection
  • Medication refills

Depending on how busy your health care clinic is, you may wait several days to see a provider in person or via telehealth. However, you only pay a standard health insurance copay for these visits.

Read more: What is primary care? Learn why you should partner with a provider for your health

Learn how to use UC Davis Health's Telehealth Express Care

What to do if you're not sure where to go

If you're not sure where to go for medical care, call your primary care provider's office. If the office isn't open, you may be able to talk to an advice nurse or other provider who can offer advice on what to do.

Check with your primary care clinic or health insurance company about this service. You can usually find a phone number to call an advice nurse on your health insurance card.

Be prepared for an emergency

It's best to be prepared in case something does happen and you need help. Find out what your choices are if you have a health concern or emergency.

Make sure you know the location of the nearest emergency department and urgent care or walk-in clinic. Program your primary care clinic's phone number in your phone or write it on a piece of paper to keep next to your landline.

Read more: Telehealth, doctor's office, urgent care or emergency room?