I’ve been lucky so far in life: I’m a pretty healthy guy. I’m in decent shape, I’ve never broken a bone, I’ve never had surgery, and I’ve never gotten seriously ill. But I know that I might not stay lucky forever, and that sooner or later I’m going to have to deal with some health issues. I’m a little uneasy about that, because I’m really not sure I know what to do if I need medical help. I mean, I get that I should call 911 if I’m in a really serious emergency. But I don’t know much about which doctor to call for what, when to go to the emergency room, and stuff like that. I’m supposed to graduate soon and join the “real world,” so can you explain the basics to me?

If you fall seriously ill or are seriously injured, you should get help right away. And you’re right to say that calling 911 is the fastest way to get help when you can’t or shouldn’t get to the hospital on your own. But other situations aren’t quite so cut and dry, and you are far from alone in being confused by the American healthcare system.

Part of the issue is, of course, that healthcare is expensive. We want to get the best treatment as soon as we can, but we also know that calling an ambulance over a stomach ache is not a very cost-effective way to manage our health. And it’s also a huge waste of resources.

So what are you supposed to do? For starters, you need health insurance. While you’ll still have details to worry about (like making sure that the regular care you get is covered under the in-network rates) the first step is to get some kind of coverage. Going without health insurance is very risky, because it means a single serious illness or injury could destroy your finances.

You should get health insurance through your work; if not, get a policy on your state’s healthcare exchange. Your insurance provider should cover visits to your primary care provider (there may be a small co-pay). Visiting your primary care provider once a year for a check-up is a must. You can also call your primary care provider if you’re sick — but don’t be surprised if they don’t have any appointments available on short notice.

If seeing your primary care doctor is impossible or inconvenient, don’t worry. Just head to an urgent care center instead. These facilities are designed for walk-ins and appointments on short-notice. Urgent care services are the right choice when you have a health concern that isn’t dangerous enough to merit a trip to the emergency room but which is too urgent for a month’s wait to see your primary care provider.

Finally, we should talk about the emergency room. Hopefully, you’ll be more familiar with primary care providers and urgent care facilities than with your local hospital’s emergency room. You should only go to the emergency room if you are experiencing symptoms of a dangerous and very urgent health problem.

Chest pain and difficulty breathing, for instance, should trigger a visit to the emergency room. So should slurred speech, serious burns, a concussion, and other issues of that level of seriousness, explain the pros at the Neighborhood Health Center medical clinic in Hillsboro, OR.

Our healthcare system can be confusing, so don’t be afraid to call doctors’ offices and urgent care facilities and ask what you should do and if they are the right people to see. As long as you’re paying attention to your health, you should have no trouble tracking down the right healthcare professionals to treat you.