Renew’s Checkup Challenge: Do you have a health emergency plan?

On the last day of our challenge, you’ll learn how to make a health emergency action plan — and get the care you need when you need it.

Nancy Fitzgerald
Older couple on the couch

The Renew Checkup Challenge is here to help you take charge of your health in a new way. Over 7 days, you’ll prepare for your next annual wellness visit, learn how to build a stronger relationship with your provider and become a better advocate for your health. Because no one ever said you had to take the changes that can come with getting older sitting down.

Nobody wants to think about health emergencies. But there’s one thing you can be sure of: Sooner or later, you or a loved one will need medical care in a hurry. After all, people visit the emergency room about 130 million times per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And urgent care centers, or walk-in clinics, treat more than half a million patients every single day, reports the Urgent Care Association.

In addition to that, your primary care provider (PCP) is usually just a phone call away, and a virtual visit can bring your PCP right to you.

So when something goes wrong, you know there are professionals ready to help, no matter when or where. But having so many options can be confusing, especially if you need to take care of a problem right away.

Find in-network emergency care
Going to a hospital or urgent-care center that’s part of your health plan’s network could save you time and money. But it helps to know where to go. UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage plan members can find out which ERs and clinics are covered by signing in to and clicking on Find Care and Costs. Not a member? Learn more here.

Don’t waste precious minutes making decisions. Take our quiz now to figure out your best bet for some common health emergencies. In each scenario, ask yourself: Should I head to the ER, an urgent care center or my PCP? Or should I make an appointment for a virtual visit?

1. You’ve sliced your finger chopping veggies and it won’t stop bleeding. Where to go?

Answer: That depends. Your first step is to try basic first aid, says Andrew Amaranto, M.D., an emergency physician at Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey.

First, wash your hands, then “wrap up the wound in paper towels or tissues — whatever’s handy,” he explains. “Many minor cuts just need 5 or 10 minutes of direct pressure and you’ll be fine.”

But if the bleeding doesn’t stop after 10 minutes of applying direct pressure, examine the cut. For lacerations deep enough to expose the yellow fatty layer under the skin, your local urgent care clinic is a good bet. For anything bigger, or for a cut that passes over a joint or tendon, head to the ER.

“Don’t wait too long,” Dr. Amaranto says. “If your cut needs to be stitched, the longer it’s open to the world, the more likely it is that an infection will develop. And for people with diabetes, it’s especially important to get that wound cleaned and closed.”

2. Your partner has been out of sorts all day, complaining of a stomachache and shoulder pain. Where do you go?

Answer: It depends. “Abdominal pain can be tricky,” says Dr. Amaranto. “It could mean anything from appendicitis to a gall bladder infection. Sometimes, even cardiac issues are associated with abdominal pain.” When a bellyache comes with left shoulder or arm pain, shortness of breath, or nausea, it can be a sign of a heart attack.

Here’s when to go to the emergency room or call an ambulance: if someone is experiencing shortness of breath and severe pain, especially if they’re older than 55 or they’ve had previous abdominal surgery. And since women and those with diabetes often have atypical symptoms of a heart attack, it’s a good idea for them to be evaluated at the ER when they have severe abdominal pain.

If your partner’s pain is milder, and abdominal pain is the only symptom, call your PCP and follow their advice.


3. Your coworker has the flu, and you think they might have given it to you. Where should you go?

Answer: Schedule a virtual visit. If you’ve been exposed to any contagious illness, from pinkeye to the flu, your best bet is to call your PCP and arrange for a virtual visit.

“That way, you won’t run the risk of exposing anyone else by going into the office,” says Dr. Amaranto. “And your doctor can send a prescription electronically to your pharmacy.”

Are virtual visits covered?
Virtual visits are quickly becoming routine. Check with your PCP’s office to see if they offer this service. UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage plan members may be able to receive virtual visits through their plan. Sign in to to see if you have virtual medical visits available to you. Not a member? Learn more here.

4. You tripped and fell on the sidewalk and now your ankle is swollen and painful. Where to go?

Answer: Maybe you bounced back up with nothing damaged but your pride. But the next day your ankle is still swollen and throbbing and you’re having difficulty walking because of the pain.

“You should consider having your injury x-rayed,” says Dr. Amaranto. “And the ER is the best place to get a rapid x-ray read by a radiologist.” There might not be a radiologist at urgent care to read an x-ray, he explains, but there’s always one at the ER.

Feel bad about going to the ER with a puffy ankle? Most hospitals have a fast-track area available 24/7 where they treat mild ailments and minor injuries.

“So don’t worry about consuming resources when the guy behind you in the waiting room is clutching his chest. We’re designed to accommodate the needs of all kinds of illness and injury,” says Dr. Amaranto. And if your injury turns out to be more serious, you’ll simply be transferred over to the main ER, he adds.

5. After dinner out with friends, you wake up in the middle of the night with hives all over your body and trouble breathing. What should you do?

Answer: Go straight to the ER. If you have a known allergy to any foods or insect stings, first use your epinephrine autoinjector, then dial 911. Severe allergic reactions can be scary — and dangerous. One that involves at least two different systems of the body (in this case, skin and respiratory) is called anaphylaxis and is a medical emergency.

The biggest red flags: swelling in the lips, tongue or throat, difficulty breathing, or fainting. “For those scenarios, you should call 911 or go to the ER — you may need epinephrine,” says Dr. Amaranto. “Any serious swelling should send you straight to the emergency department.”

On the other hand, if you have a mild reaction, such as a few hives, and you don’t have any allergies that you know about, you can try taking Benadryl, Dr. Amaranto says. “But if you don’t improve quickly, or if new symptoms appear, come into the ER.”

6. You fell in the parking lot at the grocery store and bumped your head on the pavement. You didn’t lose consciousness, but as you drive home you notice that your vision is a little blurry. Where do you go?

Answer: Go to the emergency room. If your vision is blurry and you don’t have someone to drive you to the ER, call 911 for an ambulance. “Blurred vision is a very concerning symptom to emergency room physicians,” says Dr. Amaranto. “If you experience loss of consciousness, trouble with your eyes, severe headache, or nausea or vomiting after a head injury, you should get help immediately. And anyone who takes blood thinners should come in for an evaluation even after a minor injury.”

7. In the middle of a conversation, you notice that your speech is beginning to sound slurred. Where should you go?

Answer: Call 911 or have someone bring you to the ER immediately. You could be having a stroke, and time is of the essence. Whenever a stroke is a possibility, remember the acronym BE FAST:

  • B: Balance. You may feel wobbly.
  • E: Eyes. Your vision may be blurry.
  • F: Face. One side of your face may be drooping.
  • A: Arms. Your arm or leg may feel weak or numb on one side.
  • S: Speech. Your speech may be slurred, or speaking may be difficult.
  • T: Time. Get help now and call 911 right away.

“Treatments for stroke are very time-sensitive,” says Dr. Amaranto. “If you notice any symptoms at all, don’t wait. Get help immediately.”

Create an emergency action list on your phone

What happens if you have an accident or get sick and can’t communicate with the people who are trying to help you? Luckily, your smartphone has just-in-case emergency data that responders can access right from your phone’s lock screen.

Take a moment now to make sure everything’s ready to go. Turn to Day 7 in your Checkup Challenge Activity Guide (download your copy here). You’ll find step-by-step instructions for getting emergency access running on your iPhone or Android smartphone.

It only takes a few minutes, and it just might save your life.

Catch up with the rest of the Checkup Challenge:
Day 1: Assess your physical activity level
Day 2: Test your balance
Day 3: Think about your bowel and bladder function
Day 4: Check in with your feelings
Day 5: Take charge of your care
Day 6: Check your medication knowledge