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When to go to urgent care versus the ER

Urgent care clinics make it easy to get treatment for an injury or illness, but with certain symptoms you should head straight to the hospital instead
ER or urgent care? How to know where to go 01:21

When you have a pressing medical problem, it can be tricky to know if you should head to the emergency room or an urgent care center.

Cyril Forde had to make that decision when a sports injury left him with two fractures in his right hand. "This was the result of one hard shot by somebody much younger and robust in his soccer skills," he told CBS News.

Forde chose to seek treatment at an urgent care center in New York City rather than go to a hospital emergency room. "It's great, very convenient, very quick," he said.

But how do you know which is appropriate for your medical needs?

Dr. Judah Fierstein, Medical Director of the Mount Sinai Urgent Care and Multispecialty Physicians, says urgent care centers are best for non-life-threatening emergencies, such as "a minor cut, which you know can be repaired in the office, or a fracture or a minor illness."

Doctors at urgent care centers can take x-rays and some lab tests, but for more advanced care and testing like CT scans, a trip to the emergency room is needed.

And if you have possible symptoms of heart attack or stroke, always choose the ER.

"As a general rule, if you're having severe chest pain or abdominal pain you should go straight to a hospital," Fierstein said.

Experts say there can be some gray areas where it's hard to know which is best. "Maybe you've been having a fever and a cough, and maybe you have pneumonia. Some of those cases could definitely be managed in an urgent care center. Some are better in a hospital based emergency department," Dr. Peter Shearer, medical director of the Mount Sinai Emergency Department, said.

If you do decide on an urgent care center, doctors recommend going to one that's affiliated with a hospital, so physicians there can easily share records if you do end up having to go to the hospital.

Finally, experts say people with underlying health conditions, including diabetes and cancer, should always seek emergency treatment at a hospital.

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