It’s every parent’s nightmare: a topple from a treehouse, a bottle of Benadryl left unattended, a bike accident. As much as you’d like to swaddle your children in bubble wrap and keep them safe from harm, accidents are going to happen, and you’re likely going to end up in the emergency room at least once or twice.
When your child gets hurt, it can be hard to keep a cool head. That’s why it’s important to do your research ahead of time. Find out when a trip to the ER is necessary, and when it might be a better idea to head to a local urgent care facility, by reading our compilation of answers to frequently asked questions.
First Things First: What Is Urgent Care, Anyway?
Urgent care facilities are convenient, on-demand medical clinics. There are over 8,000 of them in the United States as of 2018, and it’s a growing industry. Many of them are open 24/7, just like an emergency department. And while there are some similarities between urgent care clinics and EDs, there are also some crucial differences.
What Medical Issues Can Be Treated at Urgent Care?
It may help to think of urgent care facilities as a bridge between your primary care physician’s office and the emergency room. Urgent care treatment is ideal for issues like fractures, sprains, upper respiratory infections, lacerations, minor burns, gastrointestinal distress, earaches, and falls. In other words, if your illness or injury requires treatment within 24 hours but is not life-threatening, you should visit an urgent care clinic.
When Is It Better to Call 911 or Go to the ER?
Again, urgent care isn’t the right choice for any life-threatening situations. Heart attacks, strokes, anaphylaxis, gunshot wounds, serious lacerations with uncontrolled bleeding, loss of consciousness, compound fractures, seizures, head injuries — these are better treated in an emergency room.
What’s the Cost Differential?
Emergency rooms can charge exorbitant amounts for even the simplest treatments. That’s because, by law, they must accept and treat all patients, regardless of the patient’s insurance status or ability to pay. Therefore, those who can pay — as well as insurance companies — are in effect subsidizing those who can’t.
Another consequence of this complicated pay structure is that insurance companies have the right to refuse paying for ER visits that are not true emergencies.
“Let’s say you walk into an emergency room seeking treatment for, say, a sprained ankle or stomach flu,” explains says Dr. Anteneh Belay, a physician who provides urgent care in Pasadena. “There’s a good chance you’ll end up being billed for it even if you are insured.”
Urgent care facilities, on the other hand, almost always accept insurance. Even if you are uninsured, urgent care is generally affordable.
What About Wait Times?
One hallmark of trips to the emergency room is the extremely long wait time you may experience. Naturally, patients are prioritized by the severity of their injury or illness. If your malady is not life-threatening, you might wait for hours while staff treats incoming gunshot wounds, heart attacks, seizures, and the like.
Urgent care facilities usually operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Just as with an ER, the length of time you have to wait can fluctuate wildly depending on who else is being treated, the severity of your situation, and the number of providers on hand. However, you can also call ahead to an urgent care and make an appointment to be seen. This is a boon for busy parents that cuts down on your wait time — and eases frustration!
What Other Services Are Offered?
In addition to treating acute injuries and illnesses, many urgent care facilities have laboratory testing, radiology services, and pharmacies on site. These clinics are also increasingly offering routine services, such as sports or school physicals, immunizations, STD testing, urinalysis, pregnancy testing, etc.
It can sometimes take months to be seen at a primary care physician’s office, and urgent care helps fill in the gaps created by a shortage of PCP appointments. You can visit them at your convenience, just as you would run any errand.
The Choice Is Clear: ERs Are for True Emergencies
Urgent care facilities benefit not only patients who present with nausea, sprains, UTIs, and so on, but they also benefit those who must be treated in the emergency room. They do so by easing the burden on ER doctors and other practitioners, so that they can address severe medical problems all the more quickly.
A good way to decide whether to go to urgent care or the ER? If your injury or illness would normally be treated by your regular doctor, but is a bit more time sensitive, head to an urgent care clinic. Otherwise, call 911 or visit the emergency room.
Have you ever been to an urgent care facility? What was your experience like? Share your thoughts in the comment section!