Health Encyclopedia

When to Call 911, Your Health Care Provider, or the Hospital

When a medical emergency happens, it's not always easy to think clearly. But a crisis means that you need to act quickly. Learning ahead of time about your choices in health care will help you when an emergency does happen.

When you need immediate medical help, you have 3 choices. You can call the 911 emergency number. You can go to a hospital emergency room. Or, you can call your health care provider for advice. Here's a look at which choice is best.

When to call 911

The 911 emergency number or your community's local emergency number is for true emergencies. An emergency threatens a person's life, limbs, or sense organs. Examples are heart attacks, strokes, breathing problems, head and neck injuries, severe bleeding, and eye injuries.

You can also call 911 when you are not physically able to drive the person to the hospital, and the person has a condition that is growing worse.

When you call 911, an ambulance is sent with people trained in life support. The patient is taken to a hospital for emergency care. One reason to avoid using 911 if it's not absolutely necessary is the cost. The patient or his or her insurance company will be billed for the ambulance, the hospital, and the health care provider's services. The best reason to use 911 only in a serious emergency is so that the emergency services personnel are free to help a person having an emergency that is truly life-threatening.

When to go to a hospital

Health care providers who specialize in emergency medicine see just about everything, from real emergencies to people who come in for minor problems because they have nowhere else to go. But hospital emergency treatment is expensive because it is available 24 hours every day and has high overhead costs.

So, when is it right to go to a hospital? If you feel a person needs immediate attention and a primary care health care provider isn't available, then emergency care may be the best choice. Remember that emergency care is not first come, first served. Patients in the emergency room are treated according to the seriousness of their conditions.

When to call your health care provider

If you think a person needs emergency treatment at a hospital, it's sometimes helpful to first call your health care provider for advice. Do this only if you have the time and the health care provider is immediately available. If not, then you should call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. Your health care provider can tell you whether your situation is an actual emergency.

If there is time to spare, then you should see your health care provider first. Remember, a health care provider's visit won't be as expensive as a hospital's emergency treatment. And it won't tie up vital emergency medical services. The health care provider may also decide that the condition can be treated in his or her office or at home. This saves your time and the hospital’s time, and reduces overall health costs. 

Some other options

Urgent care centers. These are walk-in medical centers with health care providers on staff. They offer an alternative when there isn't an emergency and you can’t get to your personal health care provider. They are generally more expensive than seeing your own health care provider, but less expensive than an emergency room visit. The center usually can offer simple laboratory procedures.

Poison control centers. These centers are staffed by people well trained to handle telephone calls dealing with poisoning emergencies. Keep the number by your phone, especially if you have children at home.


Medical Reviewers:

  • Holloway, Beth, RN, MEd