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Emergency Department Or Urgent Care – Choosing The Option That’s Right For You

When some people feel sick or have a minor injury, their first thought is to visit the emergency department at their local hospital. However, there are other options. Urgent care offices are able to treat a variety of illnesses and minor injuries, often more quickly and with less cost to the patient than if the patient would visit an emergency department.

In today’s Take Care article Shannon Fegan, a Certified Physician Assistant at Keystone Urgent Care, explains the difference between urgent cares and emergency departments, and gives some tips about selecting the option that’s right for you.

What are the main differences between an urgent care office and the emergency department?

An urgent care office is designed to treat minor injuries and non-life threatening illnesses, particularly when you are unable to be seen by your PCP (Primary Care Provider) or when it is after your normal PCP’s hours. Emergency departments are for severe injuries and life-threatening illnesses. Typically, wait times are less in an urgent care due to less severe ailments being treated than those seen in an emergency department. Appointments are not needed at urgent cares, and often insurance copays are lower as well.

What types of ailments can be treated at an urgent care office?

Most urgent care centers treat things such as minor fractures (particularly of the wrist, arm, ankle and foot), sprains/strains, cold or flu-like symptoms, seasonal allergies, urinary tract infections, rashes, minor lacerations, minor headaches, ear/sinus pain, nausea/vomiting/diarrhea, eye irritation/swelling/pain and mild asthma symptoms. Chronic health problems should be managed by your PCP and not an urgent care. Urgent care centers typically do not do ongoing follow-up care or routine lab work. Some physical examinations, like school sports physicals, can be done in urgent cares; however, routine yearly physical examinations and routine childhood vaccinations must go through a PCP. Flu shots, however, are given at most urgent care centers.

How should you decide whether to go to the emergency department or an urgent care?

With true emergencies, time is of the essence. Do not delay your care by going to an urgent care first if you are experiencing chest pain, difficulty breathing, signs/symptoms of a stroke, head trauma, loss of consciousness, severe bleeding, fractures where the bone is protruding through the skin, severe abdominal pain (particularly in the lower abdomen), loss of vision or severe headache.

What are some benefits to choosing an urgent care facility for minor health problems?

The majority of patients who go to an urgent care are seen by a provider within 30 minutes of arrival. It is convenient for those who are unable to see their PCP for minor illnesses due to work/school schedules.

What should patients know about insurance and payments before selecting where to seek healthcare?

The copay at urgent care offices is often lower than that of emergency department copays. Most urgent care centers take insurance. If you aren’t certain if your insurance is accepted by the urgent care you are going to visit, call ahead and talk to the staff. They will be able to help you determine if your insurance is accepted. Recognize that because an urgent care office is not a PCP, medical advice is not given over the phone.

Will your wait at the hospital be shorter if you visit an urgent care first?

Unfortunately, I frequently hear from patients that they knew they needed to be in an emergency department but thought if they came to urgent care first, it would mean they wouldn’t have to wait as long in the emergency department. There are many factors that go into the length of time one waits in an emergency department, none of which are impacted by being sent to the emergency department from an urgent care. If you have a serious health issue, as discussed above, do not delay your care; go directly to the emergency department.

 

This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.