When Should You Go to the Doctor?

A nagging pain here, a sore throat there…should you see a doctor or not? It can be hard to decide what symptoms are serious enough to justify making an appointment.

First, it’s important to recognize an emergency: If you are having trouble breathing or have chest pain, severe abdominal pain, bleeding, head trauma or loss of consciousness, call 911 or go to a hospital emergency department.

Otherwise, you may call your primary care physician office for advice. Often times, a nurse practitioner can also offer suggestions about what to do over the phone. If you don't have a regular doctor, see our section, Finding A New Doctor.

Online health sites such as WebMD and MedlinePlus can help you research your symptoms before contacting a health professional; but remember, many conditions or illnesses, some minor and some serious, have similar symptoms. If you can, call and make an appointment to begin to put your mind at ease.

Where Should I Go if I Can’t Get a Doctor’s Appointment?

What if you have a medical problem, but your doctor's office says the next open appointment is in two weeks? Or maybe you're traveling for business in another city, or you don't have a primary care physician to call, or you're self-employed and don't have health insurance. In these instances, many people seek care at retail or urgent care clinics.

Urgent and retail care clinics are similar to each other but have some important differences. Retail clinics (as their name suggests) are often located inside retail stores, such as grocery or drug stores, and are usually not staffed by doctors, but by nurses. Urgent care clinics are usually freestanding and staffed by at least one doctor.

Both types of clinics treat non-life-threatening conditions such as:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Conjunctivitis (Pink eye)
  • Diarrhea
  • Ear infection
  • Fever
  • Flu shots
  • Nausea
  • Pneumonia
  • Rash
  • Sinus infections
  • Sore throat
  • Sport and school physicals

Urgent care clinics, because they have doctors on hand, can treat sprains, lacerations (cuts), back pain and do some imaging tests. The American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine has a complete list of the imaging tests provided by urgent care clinics.

Though convenient, urgent and retail clinics have some drawbacks including shorter appointments, no ongoing relationship with a doctor and no follow-up care. For these reasons, it’s still a good idea to find a primary care physician who will track your health over the long haul. For more information on the ins and outs of retail care clinics, check out Retail Medical Clinics: Okay in a Pinch, but No Substitute for Real Health Coverage, from Families USA.

When Should I Call the Doctor if I Have a Chronic Condition?

Feeling bad is a good sign that it’s time to make an appointment, but if you have a chronic condition like diabetes, HIV or high blood pressure, you and your doctor should have a conversation about what sort of symptoms require a doctor’s visit and how often you should be monitored to make sure your condition is not getting worse. Read more in Chronic Conditions: When Do You Call the Doctor?

Do I Need a Regular Checkup?

Even if you’re healthy, it can be a good idea to find a primary care physician who can help keep you that way with appropriate preventive health screenings and who can monitor your health over time. It is also helpful to have an established place of care where people are familiar with your past medical history and health status. To help you make the decision about having a yearly checkup, read Do You Need a Yearly Checkup?

Resources reviewed June 2013

Finding a New Doctor
Advice on what to look for in a new doctor, how to locate one (whether or not you have insurance), and links to trusted physician review websites.
How to Choose a Hospital
Not all hospitals are created equal. Here you’ll find popular ratings websites to help you compare before you go and important information about patient safety.
Deciding When to Seek Care
Not sure if you need a doctor? Here’s advice about alternatives, including urgent care and retail clinics and information about yearly checkups.


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