When you're having medical issues and your doctor is booked, where do you go?

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Urgent care centers have been popping up in New Jersey to satisfy the public's need to be seen quickly by a medical professional. But far too often, these facilities are seen as a replacement to a hospital's emergency room, and that's not a smart move, according to a doctor in Freehold.

Dr. Mark Waciega, an emergency room physician at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, has seen confusion both ways from patients and families — those who come to the ER with run-of-the-mill symptoms that can easily be treated at urgent care centers, and those who check in at urgent care centers with symptoms that could be life-threatening.

"I think people should just try to get to the appropriate place and they'll ultimately save money and time," Waciega said.

In a recent blog post on the CentraState Healthcare System website, Waciega pointed to a male patient in his 60s who was experiencing chest pain and elected to visit an urgent care center. He was having a heart attack and was then transferred by ambulance to CentraState's ER.

Waciega noted urgent care centers serve a good purpose, and may result in cheaper co-pays and a quicker in-and-out time — but they're more appropriate for non life-threatening issues.

Anthony Orzo, practice manager for Central Jersey Urgent Care, said the company's locations in Ocean and Somerset are meant to handle "minor emergencies."

Doctors at these facilities see mostly sinus infections, upper respiratory infections and lacerations.

So what issues and symptoms deserve ER care versus a trip to the urgent care center? Dr. Waciega spelled it out in his blog entry:

Urgent care — for immediate but not life-threatening issues

  • Fever without rash
  • Flu, sore throats, severe colds, coughs
  • Painful urination
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Sprains, minor cuts that may need stitches

Emergency Department (ER) — for life-preserving, advanced treatment

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Sudden weakness on one side of the body difficulty speaking, loss of balance
  • Mental confusion, distress or thoughts of suicide
  • Head, neck or eye injuries
  • Serious burns or electrical shock
  • Sudden, severe headache or vision changes
  • Newborn babies less than three months old with fever or other health issues
  • Broken bones or dislocated joints
  • Uncontrolled bleeding or open wounds
  • High fevers, fevers with rash, seizures
  • Pain or bleeding during pregnancy
  • Suspicion of exposure to a communicable disease or virus