Emergency Room or Urgent Care Clinic?

Getting the right care, at the right time, in the most appropriate setting

By Dr. Antonio P. Linares, MD, FAAFP
Published on LatinoLA: April 15, 2015

Emergency Room or Urgent Care Clinic?

It is 3 p.m. on a Sunday and your toddler's fever just spiked to 103 degrees and you're concerned he has the flu. The child's pediatrician is not available, and Monday is a national holiday, so the doctor's office will be closed.

Carlos was outside pruning bushes with dull, rusty pruning shears that slipped and cut his finger. The cut might need stitches, and you can't remember when Carlos had his last tetanus shot.

You check on your daughter who is playing outside and notice that she has broken out in hives. You don't know if the hives are from bug bites, rolling around in the grass or an allergic reaction to something she ate.

You run to turn off the oven and accidentally kick the kitchen table. Within minutes, your foot starts swelling like a balloon and you are convinced that it is broken.

You go to visit grandma, and she is having a mild asthma attack. You ask her where she keeps her inhaler, and she tells you that she hasn't had one since her prescription ran out and her primary care physician retired a few months ago.

In any one of these scenarios, what would you do? Many people would head to the nearest hospital emergency room (ER), but for these issues, the best option may be to visit an urgent care clinic. Some urgent care clinics are set up to act as extensions of primary care practices for immediate access when a patient's regular doctor is not able to care for them. These options can be especially valuable, as the patient's medical record is usually easily accessed, making for excellent continuity of care, both during the urgent care clinic visit, as well as when any follow up care is needed.

The right care, at the right time

ERs are appropriate for very serious conditions, which may result in loss of limbs, eyesight or life. Urgent care clinics have been designed to quickly and efficiently address "urgent" problems--issues that cannot wait until the next available doctor's appointment.

Like ERs, urgent care clinics are staffed with competent health care providers who have been trained to handle urgent issues. They offer x-rays, and some even have MRIs, CT scans and in-house laboratories. They are able to provide shots, medications, IVs and treatment plans, and they are available during evenings, weekends and holidays. They also accept most forms of insurance and can make referrals for follow-up care.

Urgent care clinics can also be more convenient and cost-effective. ERs do not have the same wait times and pricing schedules as urgent care clinics. Since ERs do not operate on a "first come, first serve" basis, a person who does not have a-life-threatening issue may have to wait for hours to get care in a busy ER as patients with more traumatic issues receive priority. In urgent care clinics, the average wait is approximately 15 45 minutes. Also, the cost for basic care in an urgent care clinic can average less than $100, while that same care can cost more than $1,000 if provided in an ER.

To most people, every medical situation is an emergency, and sometimes it is hard to determine how serious the problem is, so here are some examples of issues and where they could be treated:

Urgent Care Clinic
Minor burns and cuts
Sprains, strains and broken bones (if the bone is not sticking through the skin)
Coughs, congestion, sore throats, ear infections, vomiting and diarrhea
Colds, flu, fever, headaches, body aches and cramps
Rashes, irritations and allergic reactions (non-life-threatening)
Mild asthma

Hospital Emergency Room
Heart attack or severe chest pain
Stroke or stroke-like symptoms
Loss of consciousness
Uncontrollable bleeding
Head trauma
Serious abdominal pain
Difficulty breathing
Sudden loss of vision or blurred vision

When in doubt, many insurance companies offer a free 24-hour, 7-day-a-week nurse advice hotline for guidance. The phone number can usually be found on your insurance card, and the on-call nurse can also help you to locate the closest urgent care clinic, as often people do not know where these clinics are located.

About Dr. Antonio P. Linares, MD, FAAFP:
Regional Vice President, Medical Director, Anthem Blue Cross
Author's website

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