There's no shortage of things that can go wrong with the human body, given that it's home to more than 70 organs, 200 bones and 600 muscles. And when something does happen — whether it's a painful earache, broken bone, chest pain or just learning your blood pressure is high — you might be unsure what kind of doctor or care you need.
The four major types of medical care include:
- Primary care – doctors who help with everything from preventive care and minor health concerns to the management of chronic conditions like asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes
- Specialty care – doctors whose sole focus is particular organs and related diseases, such as gastroenterologists, endocrinologists, cardiologists, neurologists and more
- Urgent care – when timely medical help is wanted, but the concern isn't life-threatening
- Emergency care – when immediate medical attention is needed to treat a serious or life-threatening issue
Each may sound simple enough, but there's nuance to consider within the categories. Dr. Jonathan Zalamea, a primary-care doctor who also specializes in sports medicine, answers common questions about how to know what kind of care you need.
What is a primary-care doctor and when should you see one?
Everyone needs a primary-care doctor. Why? As medical experts who know your entire health history and can diagnose, treat or triage almost any issue that arises, they're your go-to partner for staying healthy.
Key to primary care is your annual physical exam, a check-in appointment to make sure you're up-to-date on immunizations and routine health screenings — including the blood work that can help detect common health problems early. (Related: 5 Reasons You Need a Primary-Care Doctor in Your 20s & 30s)
"The sooner we catch a chronic health issue, the better," says Dr. Zalamea. "And we can catch those at an annual visit and help you manage the condition moving forward."
(Related: 4 Health Numbers Everyone Should Know)
The common chronic health conditions your primary-care doctor can help manage include:
Some primary-care doctors, like Dr. Zalamea, also specialize in sports medicine and can help active adults with both their primary-care needs and management of common issues that can occur if you're physically active, including joint pain, osteoarthritis and other musculoskeletal issues.
"Another benefit of having an established relationship with your doctor is that you already have someone to go to if something acute comes up," adds Dr. Zalamea. "Anything that's disrupting your day-to-day life and isn't going away after a few days, that's a reason to come in."
Examples of the minor health issues to see your primary-care doctor about include:
- Colds, flu or COVID-19
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Coughs, fevers or sore throats
- Sinus infections
- Urinary tract infections
What if you need care for a minor health issue sooner?
Your primary-care doctor can help you address the occasional health issues like the ones mentioned and, if you're an established patient, usually fit you in for an appointment in just a matter of days.
This won't be an appointment with your usual doctor, but it's a way to get quick, quality care from a medical provider.
In the case of something like a sports injury, Orthopedic Injury Clinics offer same-day care for issues ranging from sprains and strains to even acute injuries like broken bones and torn ligaments.
"These options are for those occasional, acute things that pop up and need that more immediate care, not chronic issues," adds Dr. Zalamea. "If it's a chronic problem, like mild back pain that's been bothering you for a few weeks or you've noticed your blood pressure numbers have been slowly creeping up over the last few days, schedule an appointment with your primary-care doctor instead. Those are the instances when having a doctor who knows your health history is really beneficial."
How do you know if you need specialty care?
When does frequent heartburn become a reason to see a gastroenterologist? Is joint pain something you need a sports medicine doctor to help treat? Do recurring headaches mean it's time to see a neurologist? And do you need a referral to see one of these specialists?
It depends, and Dr. Zalamea points out that your primary-care doctor can be a resource for you when these types of questions arise.
"That's part of our role, so I always recommend triaging your concern with your primary-care doctor first," says Dr. Zalamea. "We can get a better understanding of your clinical picture and guide you from there."
Most of the time, your primary-care doctor will start by implementing first-line treatments for your symptoms or issue — recommending lifestyle changes and/or medications known to help. If symptoms persist despite this, referral to a specialist may be needed so that other diagnostic tests or procedures can be performed.
"For instance, if someone has acid reflux and we've ruled out the common causes and tried a few medications but symptoms still won't go away, a referral to a gastroenterologist might be in order," explains Dr. Zalamea. "That's when we rely on a specialist's training on that specific condition or their particular skills, like performing endoscopy to visualize the esophagus."
Keep in mind that certain medical plans require you to have a referral before scheduling an appointment with a specialist. And even for medical plans that don't, the specialist can sometimes require a referral.
ER vs. urgent care: Where should you go?
When the problem is more than something minor but you need immediate care, knowing when to go to urgent care and when to go to an emergency room can be confusing.
"As long as you're not experiencing a serious medical issue, urgent care centers and stand-alone emergency clinics are a totally acceptable choice," says Dr. Zalamea. "For example, diarrhea, a urinary tract infection, feeling sick to your stomach — those are all times when you may want to seek urgent care if your doctor can't fit you in within a reasonable timeframe."
You can also consider Virtual Urgent Care in situations like this, too. No matter where you are, it allows you to get the help you need via a video visit.
"If you're experiencing a life-threatening issue, however, you need to instead call 911 or go to an emergency room attached to a hospital," stresses Dr. Zalamea.
The distinction between hospital-based emergency rooms and stand-alone emergency clinics is an important one.
"Time is tissue when it comes to heart attack, stroke and other serious medical event," Dr. Zalamea warns. "If someone with stroke-like symptoms goes to a stand-alone emergency clinic, they're just going to be transferred to an ER attached to a hospital — and that's wasted time. Call 911 or go straight to a hospital-based ER instead."
What are the signs of a serious or life-threatening medical emergency?
Seek immediate medical attention at a hospital-based emergency room for any of the following:
- Chest pain or a squeezing sensation in the chest
- Signs of stroke, which include sudden onset of slurred speech, vision changes and weakness on one side of the body
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Head, neck or spine injury
- Uncontrolled bleeding
- Intense pain, including severe headache or severe abdominal pain
- Loss of consciousness
- Major burns or electric shocks
- Pregnancy-related issues, such as severe cramping or bleeding
- Poisoning or suspected overdose
- Suicidal thoughts