Illness and injury can strike at any time — and you can’t always wait for an appointment with your regular doctor. For critical situations such as car accidents or heart attack or stroke symptoms, the hospital is the obvious choice. But what about for a minor cut that may need stitches, a sudden backache from moving furniture, or when your child spikes a fever in the hours after your pediatrician’s office is closed?
For situations that aren’t life-threatening but that require treatment right away, you’ve got another choice: urgent care. Knowing when to choose urgent care or emergency room (ER) care can make a big difference in your care experience.
What Is Urgent Care?
An urgent care center is a medical practice that can treat patients on a walk-in basis, without the need for an appointment. Urgent care centers specialize in treating minor injuries or illnesses that require fast care, but that aren’t life-endangering. Examples include sprains or strains, small cuts or first-degree burns, cold or flu symptoms, or other situations you might go to your regular doctor for if they were available right away.
Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room
It may seem like the ER is the best place to go to get the best care. After all, the ER has highly trained critical care staff, plus equipment and resources for dealing with the most serious traumas. So, why would you choose urgent care vs ER care? For one, those more serious cases are always prioritized in the ER. So you could end up waiting hours to see a doctor for something more minor. In an urgent care center, you’d likely see a health care professional much more promptly.
There’s a good chance you’ll pay less in an urgent care center, too. Hospital ERs are expensive to run, and those costs trickle down to consumers, even ones who have comprehensive health insurance. Most health plans charge higher copays for ER visits to incentivize members to only use the ER for true emergencies.
What Is a True Emergency?
A true emergency is a medical situation that could result in death or permanent disability without immediate care. Examples include:
- Chest pain or other symptoms that might indicate a heart attack
- Difficulty breathing or severe shortness of breath
- Loss of consciousness
- Facial dropping or weakness in an arm or leg
- Change in mental status – unusual behavior, confusion or difficulty waking
- Severe allergic reactions, including reactions to insect bites
- Severe bleeding that doesn’t stop
- Head trauma
- Suspected poisoning
- Major broken bones
- Coughing or vomiting blood
- Persistent vomiting
- Injuries due to a major traumatic event such as a car accident, near drowning or fire
- Suicidal or homicidal thoughts or feelings
If you or someone else is experiencing these symptoms, you should call 911 or go to the ER immediately.
When to Go to Urgent Care
Urgent care centers are better equipped to deal with the types of situations for which you might consult with your regular family doctor. They’re a great choice for after-hours or weekend or care, or for times when you simply can’t get an appointment with your primary care provider. Urgent care providers can provide fast treatment for things like earaches, mild infections, “stomach flu,” small cuts and scrapes, muscle aches and pains, mild burns, and other minor events.
In the stress of the moment, when you or someone you love is hurting, it’s not always easy to think clearly about whether to choose urgent care or ER. It’s a good idea to educate yourself ahead of time. Knowing which type of care is appropriate for a situation can make a real difference in the efficiency and affordability of your care experience.