Articles Urgencies & Emergencies

When to Call 911 for a Health Emergency

I see many patients with non-urgent health issues in my urgent care practice. And so, in the ED, doctors see patients who don’t have health emergencies. So how do you know when a health issue is an emergency and when to call 911?

Driving Yourself to the ED

If you are feeling faint, dizzy, or could be having a heart attack or stroke, it’s too dangerous to drive yourself.

You would also delay your care since patients brought in by ambulance will have a higher care priority.

The worst thing would be to drive to an ED that’s full or on divert or may not have the specific specialty services you may need.

When you call 911 for a health emergency, they know where to take you for what condition.

The Cost of the Ambulance

Sometimes in your life, the price of something should be ignored. It’s hard to put a price on your health, and my patients regret not doing something sooner.

Sure, you could call an Uber or Lyft instead, but even an $800 ambulance fee is better than getting stuck in the ED for 6 hours.

Paramedics in an ambulance are also quite experienced in handling an emergency. They administer life saving medication immediately and relay important information to the doctors.

Long Wait Times in the ED

In my urgent care, the wait times are 2 hours which is the new normal after the pandemic.

Many emergency departments are experiencing 6-12 hour waits. These wait times in the ED happen because many remain uninsured or underinsured in the US.

Because emergency care cannot be denied, the person can go to the ED for a medication refill or a persistent cough and obtain treatment.

Paramedic Evaluation

The best part of calling 911 for a health emergency is that the paramedics evaluate you on the spot.

They can run basic tests and check your vital signs. If something is off, you’ll be alerted immediately. If you aren’t as sick as you feared, they can tell you what other options you have.

When in Doubt, Call 911

How much do you value your health? That’s not an easy question to answer. But many of us value it highly because it affects our day-to-day enjoyment of life.

If you feel a sudden pain, suffer trauma, or experience anything out of the ordinary that puts you on alert, call 911 because it could be a health emergency.

It’s better to let healthcare experts decide what needs to be done than sit there and guess.

Common Emergencies that are Often Missed


Severe headaches can be emergencies, especially if you’ve never felt them before. Often, most end up being migraines or tension headaches.

A headache that wakes you up in the middle of the night or worsens with exertion is worrisome and should be evaluated immediately.

Sudden Pain

Sudden chest pain, jaw pain, and back pain that seems unprovoked deserve a visit to a clinician. If it’s ongoing and causing sweating or nausea, I recommend calling 911.

If it came on and is resolving, perhaps an urgent care visit will suffice.


Many will suffer cuts on the feet, face, and hands from the day-to-day stuff. If it’s a job site-related injury, it’s better to go in because you may need thorough cleaning and a tetanus injection.

Most EDs have a fast-track where you can be seen faster for the non-acute stuff.

Abdominal Pain

Sudden abdominal pain with nausea or tenderness needs an evaluation. Things can go wrong quickly in the intestines. From perforation to obstruction to bleeding.

If the pain is tolerable, then the urgent care will suffice. If the pain is severe and you’re immobile, then 911 is better than driving yourself to the ED.


Sudden weakness or difficulty with speech or movement is always a 911 health emergency. Time is everything when it comes to such neurovascular emergencies.


Vomiting associated with chest pain or abdominal pain that starts suddenly could be a heart issue but often ends up gastrointestinal.

If you are at risk for heart conditions, then 911 is the best option. If it seems intestinal, then the urgent care would be a better option.

Bloody Stool

Bloody diarrhea often happens from intestinal infections. This differs from small blood spots, often due to hemorrhoids or anal fissures.

If massive bleeding is mixed in with the stool, it’s better to get evaluated immediately. Especially when having severe abdominal pains and multiple bowel movements daily.

Call 911 if your instincts tell you it’s serious – no need to doubt yourself.

Coughs and Colds

For sudden shortness of breath, calling 911 is the right action. But it’s often safe to wait to see your primary care doctor or go to a walk-in clinic or urgent care for coughs and colds with or without fevers.

Visions Changes

Sudden double vision, blurred vision, or flashers and floaters that aren’t going away deserve immediate evaluation.

We want to rule out damage to the retina or the optic nerve.

This can’t be adequately done in the urgent care; the ED is a better place for this.


Any potential fracture or laceration should ideally be managed in the emergency department. Sure, I can handle most of it in the urgent care.

But in the urgent care, sometimes we don’t have access to x-rays or I cannot perform specific procedures.

If it’s minor trauma, it’s best to do a Google Maps search for nearby urgent care. Call them ahead and ask if they can handle your particular trauma.

All significant head trauma deserves an ED visit.

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