Getting Healthcare FAQs

Going to the right place for the right treatment can save you a lot of time and help you get the right diagnosis.
Accident and Emergency

A&E departments assess and treat patients with serious injuries or illnesses. Generally, you should visit A&E or call 999 for life-threatening emergencies, such as:

  • loss of consciousness
  • acute confused state and fits that are not stopping
  • persistent, severe chest pain
  • breathing difficulties
  • severe bleeding that cannot be stopped

Some people think that by ringing for an ambulance they will be seen as a priority at Casualty. Wrong. All new arrivals are assessed by a triage nurse who ensures that patients are seen in order of seriousness. Calling an ambulance when you don't need one will only annoy the very people you want to help you, the doctors and nurses, and may deny an ambulance to someone in a genuine life or death emergency.

TV programmes like ER can give the impression that A&E doctors are the best in their profession. Not true. They are experts in accidents but when it comes to say, detecting a lump that could be cancerous, your GP is a much better bet. Look at it this way: your local panel beater may have made your dented front wing as good as new but you still wouldn't ask them to tune your engine.

Urgent Care Centres/Minor Ailment Centres

There's confusion, even amongst doctors, over exactly what the new urgent care centres and minor aliment centres are meant to treat. But below is a list of injuries that are commonly treated there.

  • broken bones
  • bites
  • burns and scalds
  • infections
  • minor illnesses in children and adults including fever, infections and rashes
  • sprains
  • wounds.
NHS 111

This is a new service you can call 111 when you need medical help fast but it’s not a 999 emergency. NHS 111 is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Calls are free from landlines and mobile phones.

Call 111 if:

  • you need medical help fast but it's not a 999 emergency
  • you think you need to go to A&E or need another NHS urgent care service
  • you don't know who to call or you don't have a GP to call
  • you need health information or reassurance about what to do next
GP Surgeries

If you have something that you're not sure about such as a pain or a lump or stomach upset that won't clear up, make an appointment to see your GP. It makes sense to do this because, first, if it is serious, only your GP can refer you to a specialist such as a hospital consultant, physiotherapist or chiropractor and, second, the pharmacist can only give you drugs for more serious conditions if you have a prescription from your GP.

If you have to wait for an appointment try a walk-in centre in the meantime.

Don't ask your GP for a home visit, by the way, unless you really are unable to move from the house. Nine times out of ten, you will have to wait longer than you will for a surgery appointment.

You can see your GP about absolutely anything at all and that includes sexually transmitted infections although GUM clinics are specially designed to help people with problems of this nature.

And don't forget that your GP is probably not the only health expert at your GP surgery. The practice nurse, for example, can sort out holiday jabs, blood tests or other routine matters often without an appointment. They can also advise you on how to use the medicines your doctor has prescribed.

Some GPs surgeries also have physiotherapists, counsellors and other specialists on site to the GP can refer you.

All GPs surgeries must produce a leaflet explaining their services. Ask for one next time youre passing.

Sexual health (or GUM) Clinics

Sexual health or Genitourinary medicine clinics can often be found in hospitals and are set up to deal with the testing and treatment of STIs. They offer free and confidential advice on sexual health and STIs and can, if necessary, contact previous partners anonymously. Your GP will not be notified about your visit to the clinic and you don't even need to give your name to the clinic if you really don't want to. There are a number of advantages in going to a clinic to get advice or tested:

  • They are obliged by law to keep all information you give to them confidential (although there are some rare exceptions)
  • They are specialists in this area and so are expert at spotting symptoms and offering counselling
  • They are likely to do the full range of tests
  • You can get free condoms and advice on safer sex as part of your treatment
  • They are usually the quickest route to getting test results.

In some cases clinics will be able to find out if you have an infection and give you the right medicine there and then, and it's all free.

Your local clinic may run an appointment system or you may be able to drop in to an open session. Phone first to find out what system is operated at your clinic.

Walk In Centres

NHS walk-in centres offer convenient access to a range of treatment. They're kind of like a halfway house between your GP and a pharmacist as they usually managed by a nurse and are available to everyone. Compared to your GP, you may find their location - usually in the middle of bigger towns and cities - and opening hours - usually 7am and 10pm - more convenient. You can pop in easily while you're out and about, generally without an appointment. They also won't know you which you might prefer in some cases - although without your medical history, they might be less able to make a prompt diagnosis. Conditions they deal with on a regular basis:

  • infections and rashes
  • blood pressure checks
  • fractures and lacerations
  • emergency contraception and advice
  • stomachaches
  • vomitting and diarrhoea
  • hay fever
  • insect and animal bites
  • stitches (sutures)
  • dressing care
  • minor cuts and bruises
  • minor burns and strains
  • Stop smoking support 

About 50 of the 230 walk-in centres in England closed from 2010-2013.


If you have something that you're pretty sure will clear up with a tablet or cream like a cold, sore throat, athlete's foot, dandruff or zits, the easiest thing to do is just ask your pharmacist. As there's one on most high streets, they can be the quickest source of basic medical advice. They can sell you over-the-counter (OTC) remedies and also tell you if it's more serious than you think. If you'd prefer to speak in private rather than in front of other customers, just ask. It's normally no problem.


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Date published 08/04/14
Date of last review 08/04/14
Date of next review 08/04/17


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