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Right Care, Right Place, Right Time: Your healthcare order of operations
Right Care, Right Place, Right Time: Your healthcare order of operations

Save time and money by following these steps to determine the right move to address your healthcare needs.

Updated over a week ago

5-minute read

You may remember hearing the acronym PEMDAS or the phrase “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally,” in math class.

Sound familiar? Well, that was a guide (also known as an order of operations) to steer you through solving a math problem, step by step.

You might not be doing much algebra these days, but the American healthcare system has its own order of operations.

Just like how forgetting about Aunt Sally could leave you struggling in math class, not following the healthcare order of operations can leave you stuck when you need care. It can also result in wasted time and money.

A step-by-step guide for patients

When you or a loved one needs medical treatment, it’s easy to get caught up in the stress of it all. Imagine, for instance, your 8-year-old flies into the house after a run-in with some angry bees. As their parent, you might be scared they’ll have an allergic reaction and be tempted to rush them to the emergency room. No one would blame you for panicking, but you’d be left with a hefty bill and a few regrets if they don’t actually need emergency treatment.

Instead, brush up on the healthcare order of operations detailed below. Then the next time you or a loved one is sick or injured, you can make an informed decision on how and where to seek help.

Step 1: Call a nurse hotline

When you go to an in-person healthcare appointment, you more than likely speak with a nurse first. Not only do nurses make up a majority of the U.S. healthcare workforce, they also have the training and knowledge to triage, examine, and advise patients. But did you know you can get help from a nurse without even leaving your home?

Most health insurance cards have a 24-hour nurse hotline listed on the back.

This confidential hotline is great for getting quick, personalized answers to your health questions.

Nurse hotlines can help point you in the right direction. The purpose isn’t to diagnose — but to help you determine whether you need to get immediate care, book a next-day doctor’s appointment, or handle it yourself at home.

Step 2: See your primary care provider

Think of your primary care provider as your medical home base. This is the caregiver you visit for general medical needs, such as yearly checkups, preventive screenings, and non-urgent illnesses.

Getting to know your primary clinician is one of the best ways to stay healthy and keep your medical costs low. They can help identify and reduce the chance of potential health problems as early as possible, and they will have a good understanding of your health history. For these reasons, they are the second step in the healthcare order of operations.

If you’ve had a cough and sore throat for a few days, for instance, it might be time to book a quick appointment with your primary care provider. You can also visit them to treat minor injuries like a sprained ankle, receive immunizations like a flu shot, or get your prescriptions refilled. Finally, if they discover something that needs additional attention, they can refer you to a specialist for further treatment.

Step 3: Visit an urgent care clinic

Now, imagine you’ve had that same cough and sore throat for nearly a week. Maybe you now have a fever too. The cherry on top? It’s Saturday night, your doctor’s office is closed, and you can’t contact them until Monday morning. In a situation like this, your best option is to visit an urgent care clinic.

Urgent care clinics can treat many symptoms and conditions, including abdominal pain, non-life-threatening allergic reactions, ear infections, and urinary tract infections.

They’re also walk-in clinics, which means you don’t need to make an appointment before seeing a nurse or doctor. The clinician you see may not know your full medical history, but it will be a lot cheaper than going straight to the emergency room.

Step 4: Head to the Emergency Room (ER)

“Urgent” and “emergency” care both sound like there’s a medical need that must be dealt with as soon as possible. But there are differences between the two. For instance, most urgent care clinics are not equipped to handle the advanced treatment needed for a compound fracture.

So in certain cases, you’ll want to head straight to the emergency room. If you have any kind of chest pain, for example, you should head directly to the ER. It might just be heartburn from too much pizza the night before, but it could also be an early sign of a serious medical condition. Other reasons to go straight to the ER could be excessive bleeding, severe burns, seizures, numbness on one side of the body, or breathing difficulties.

Step 5: Call 911

One last bit of advice is to immediately call 911 if you have symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. Don’t try to drive yourself to the hospital. Instead, dial 911 and paramedics can monitor your symptoms or start treatment while safely transporting you to the hospital for further evaluation.

The next time you’re unsure where to go for a medical issue, check this healthcare order of operations to make sure you start with the right step for your needs.

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