When To Choose A General Practitioner Over The Emergency Department?

by Yuyu. Published on .

In increasingly crowded healthcare spaces, discerning the most appropriate point of care is critical. Knowing when to visit a general practitioner or when it's time to rush to the emergency department can not only save you time and impact your health but can help save other lives as it frees up A&Es of non-emergency cases.

Let's delve into the fundamental differences between these two healthcare settings and provide guidelines to help decide when to choose one over the other.

Ambulance Emergency Department
Photo by Mat Napo

What Are The Differences Between General Practitioner and Emergency Department?

The main difference between an emergency department and a general practitioner is in the severity of cases they are designed to handle.

General practitioners are typically suited to handle non-life-threatening conditions. They exist to offer convenient and timely care for minor conditions that however require immediate attention.

They are the first medical professionals you should visit when you feel unwell. For mild to moderate conditions such as cough, runny nose, or simple sprains, your General Practitioner (GP) in Singapore can treat the symptoms well and make referrals to the Accident & Emergency (A&E) and/or Urgent Care Centre (UCC) under the GPFirst programme if required.

#GPFirst: If your GP refers you to the Emergency Department, you'll get:

  • Priority over non-emergency cases
  • $50 subsidy on prevailing attendance fee

On the other hand, emergency departments are a fixture in hospitals and are equipped to handle serious, life-threatening conditions.

When a medical situation poses an immediate danger or in dire life-or-death circumstances, the Emergency Department is the go-to point of care.

Account for the potential wait time too: While general clinics offer faster service, emergency departments prioritize patients based on the severity of their condition, which could lead to longer waiting periods for non-urgent cases.

Assess Your Situation

While A&E visits have been increasing, it doesn't necessarily mean there's an increase in emergency cases in Singapore.

Based on recent studies conducted at public hospitals including Singapore General Hospital (SGH), the A&E (Accident and Emergency) departments of public hospitals have been seeing a continuous rise in the number of patients for the past five years – going up by approximately 5.4 percent or an additional 36,000 visits per annum.

However, more than 50% of the A&E cases are non-emergencies or what hospitals classify as P3 (Priority 3) cases, which means they are cases that could be treated by General Practitioners (GP) / Family Physicians with acute care resources.

Perform a quick assessment of the situation before you head for the nearest emergency department.

“Doing this simple initial step can help save lives as it frees up A&Es of non-emergency cases. Plus, if you have a non-emergency condition and visit a GP instead, you’ll probably get treated sooner,” says Dr Jeremy Wee, Consultant, Department of Emergency Medicine, Singapore General Hospital​ (SGH), a member of the SingHealth​ group.

Types of Injuries and Treatment

The type of injury or illness you have will determine where you should seek help.

A general practitioner can handle a wide variety of minor injuries and illnesses, including infections, minor fractures, and common diseases. They might also provide vaccinations and routine health exams. Treatments at general practitioners are usually fast, efficient, and cost-effective.

If you've broken a bone, but the bone isn't threatening to puncture your skin, a general clinic might be your best choice. Here, they can conduct x-rays, provide temporary casts, and refer you to a specialist for further treatment if required.

Contrastingly, if you suffer from severe, complex fractures, especially those involving joints, like hips, knees, or shoulders, an emergency department is likely your best bet. Emergency departments have teams of specialists available 24/7 to handle such situations.

What are the different Priority Levels at the Emergency Department?

Priority 1 - Resuscitation & Critically-ill Patients

Patients in a state of cardiovascular or imminent collapse are attended to immediately at the Resuscitation Area. The doctors will speak to the family members after they have assessed and stabilized the patient.

Examples: Heart attack, severe injuries, severe bleeding, shock, and severe asthma attack.

Priority 2 - Major Emergencies (Non-Ambulant)

Patients with acute medical conditions must be initially treated in the Hospital. They are in stable condition and do not require resuscitation. They are required to be trolley-based for patient examination and treatment. These patients are attended to early at the Critical Care Area. The doctors will speak to the family member after they have initially assessed the patient.

Examples: Major limb fracture/dislocation, moderate injuries, severe abdominal pain, and other severe medical illnesses.

Priority 3 - Minor Emergencies (Ambulant)

Patients with acute symptoms who are in a stable condition and are able to walk. These patients may be treated by General Practitioners (GP) / Family Physicians with acute care resources or at the Emergency Department. After Triage, they are seen at the Emergency Consultation Area. Family members may enter the consultation room with the patient, but they may be asked to take a seat in the waiting area when examinations and procedures are being performed.

Examples: Sprains, minor injuries, minor abdominal pain, vomiting, rashes and mild headaches.

Priority 4 - Non-Emergency

If it's an old injury or a condition that has been present for a long time such as Chronic joint pains, chronic skin rash, long-term nasal discharge, old scars, cataracts, and removal of tattoos. you preferably be attended to by General Practitioners (GP) / Family Physicians.

The Emergency Department is not the appropriate facility for their care. You may wish to go to your own General Practitioner or to a polyclinic.

Conclusion

Understanding the key difference between a general practitioner and the emergency department is crucial for effective treatment. General practitioners (GPs) are excellent for minor, non-life-threatening conditions that need immediate attention, while emergency departments are equipped to treat severe, life-threatening situations.

However, always trust your gut feeling – If a condition feels worse than a routine illness or injury, it's best not to take a chance and head to your nearest emergency department. With health, it's better to play it safe than be sorry.

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