It’s a Thursday evening, and your 15-month-old daughter is running a fever. She is fussy, periodically pulls on her ears, refuses to eat: and is overall not her usual playful self.
Do you do some primary care and contact your pediatrician’s office to book an appointment for the following day? Or head straight to an urgent care center?
Then again, what if the condition develops into a fever-induced seizure? You heard it had happened to the baby of your friend’s friend. Does that make heading to the nearest emergency department the ideal solution?
While some medical conditions are a no-brainer, many fall in a gray area. That may explain why over 30% of ER visits in the United States are non-urgent and could be addressed at a convenient care center.
Urgent Care or Emergency Room?
The choice is particularly tricky when dealing with young children, as their unique physiology dictates different assessment and treatment approaches.
Still, in such difficult times: it’s vital to weigh your options to receive the best care while avoiding costly medical bills and long wait times.
This guide explores urgent care vs. emergency room care to help you determine the best facility to seek medical attention depending on your injuries or illness.
Understand the Help You Require
Understanding the help you need is essential to determining where to go for treatment. You can understand that by considering the following:
The severity of the injury or illness you have
If you have moderate or minor injuries, for instance, urgent care is a better option. The same goes if you:
- Have injuries or illnesses without other symptoms
- Or don’t have underlying or chronic health conditions
That means an earache can be treated in an urgent care center as long as you don’t have a history of, say, cancer. Or if the earache is not accompanied by, say, fever.
In case of severe injuries or ailments, emergency care is the best option.
Whether or not the symptoms are recurrent
Chronic illnesses that cause recurrent mild symptoms can be treated in an urgent care setting. Take recurrent headaches, for example. Or recurrent symptoms of UTIs, colds, sinus infections, or bronchitis.
The presence of “red flag” symptoms
Shortness of breath or severe chest pain – especially if experiencing such for the first time – should prompt an ER visit or 911 call. Other red flag symptoms include:
- Sudden numbness in your arms, legs, or face
- Difficulty speaking
- Difficulty with coordination
- Vision problems
Whether waiting for care will potentially be life-threatening
In urgent care settings, you will receive treatment quicker than in an emergency room. A survey done by the Urgent Care Association of America found that it takes only 30 minutes or less before one can see a physician at a convenient care center.
Contrarily, wait time in emergency rooms can be longer depending on the severity of the medical conditions. Patients needing immediate care can be attended to within seconds, whereas those with non-urgent conditions can wait for even 24 hours before seeing a doctor.
Note, if your condition worsens while in the waiting room, speak to medical staff immediately.
If you’re unsure about your symptoms, contact your doctor or after-hours answering services to talk to a triage physician about your symptoms.
Know Where to Go for Urgent Health Care Emergencies
When feeling sick, you can access medical care from a doctor’s office, retail health clinic, urgent care, or emergency room.
You should contact your primary care provider first; in case of non-emergency situations. The reason is: your physician knows you, your medical history, and the medications or conditions that might affect your treatment.
This option can save you from wasting time and costly medical expenses too.
If your primary care physician is unavailable or inexperienced in the care you need, they can refer you to other medical professionals or specialists. (If you don’t have such a health provider yet, review the available options in your network, then select one.)
Urgent care center
If your doctor is unavailable or needs medical care past regular office hours, retail health clinics or urgent care centers are good alternatives.
Generally, convenient care centers have skilled physicians and can treat a range of medical conditions, including conducting:
- Simple lab tests
- Stitching (minor cuts)
- Employment drug-testing
The out-of-pocket costs associated with visiting an urgent care are lower than visiting an emergency room. Be sure to check that your insurance plan covers the location of the care center you visit.
Emergency rooms are designated for urgent and life-threatening conditions. They are well equipped to provide treatments and diagnostic tools, such as:
- CT scans
- Lab work
- Operating rooms
- Orthopedic equipment
- Treatment and medication
- Cardiac monitoring, etc.
When evaluating where to go for medical care, it’s essential to consider what’s covered by your health insurance provider. That means taking urgent care vs. emergency room costs into account.
A visit to the ER is considerably pricier than accessing care in urgent care settings. While the latter averages around $150 per trip, emergency room medical expenses can surpass $1000 depending on your condition.
The cost of medical care should not prevent you from seeking help when you need it. For one, many health facilities offer flexible payment plans. They can also enlighten you about available financial aid, assist in applying for health insurance, or offer generous charity care.
If you’re unsure what doctor visits are covered in your plan, head to your provider’s website and check their online directory. Alternatively, call your insurance carrier and ask them directly – referencing your specific situation. That means it’s essential to save the following telephone numbers on your phone:
- Nurse telephone advice line
- Your primary care provider
- Walk-in clinic
- Urgent care center
- The closest emergency department
What is Considered Urgent Care
Urgent care focuses on medical conditions that are not acute or potentially limb or life-threatening emergencies. But still, need immediate care – within 24 hours.
You can access urgent care in a convenient care center: staffed with physicians or assistants trained in family medicine. These medical professionals usually have a range of medical skills and knowledge, enabling them to diagnose and treat different illnesses. They can also assess when you need a trip to the ER or specialist.
Generally, urgent care involves injuries or illnesses, such as:
- Insect bites
- Bone fractures
- Nasal or chest congestion
- Ear infection
- Cough and cold
- Sinus infection
- Sore throat
- Strep throat
- TB tests
- Sprains or strains
- Pink eye
- Minor burns
- Immunization, etc.
In cases of young children, the need for urgent care may be in the form of:
- Fever accompanied by flu-like symptoms
- Ear infection characterized by earache, ear pulling, or drainage from the ear
- Sore throat (without white marks on the tonsils)
- Pink eye characterized by inflamed or red eyes (with(out) discharge)
- A few episodes of diarrhea or vomiting
As a rule of thumb: if your child can still talk, walk, play, and interact with others, chances are the injuries or illnesses they have are not an emergency.
When to Use the Emergency Room
Sparing yourself a visit to the ER is not only convenient but also time and cost-saving. However, a trip to the emergency room is necessary in cases of limb- or life-threatening conditions. Or when the symptoms are so severe that they cannot be relieved with over-the-counter medications. Symptoms such as:
- Altered mental state
- Extremely-high or low vital signs, like heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and breathing rate
- Sudden numbness of the leg, arm, or face
- Vision loss
- Loss of coordination
- Trouble speaking or understanding
- Excessive bleeding
- High-pitched breathing sounds
- Inability to swallow liquids
- Chest pain
- Irregular heartbeat rhythm
- Distended or rigid belly
- Extensive rash
- Severe joint dislocation or limb fracture
- Vomiting or coughing blood
- Bleeding during pregnancy
- Falls while pregnant
- Debilitating headache
- Blood in the stool
- Severe dehydration
- Major trauma like head injuries
- Suicidal thoughts
- Surgery complications
- Conditions requiring medical specialists, etc.
In case of suspected COVID-19 ailment, notify the emergency department that that’s what you are seeking care for – that way, the facility can prepare in advance to help curb the spread of the virus.
In case of minors, consider making a trip to the ER if your child:
- Is below two months and has a fever (100.4°F or higher)
- Has visible bumps, swelling, or unevenness in the injured area
- Has a broken bone
- Appear to lose consciousness
- Is dehydrated or has dry mouth and lips, absence of urination for 12+ hours, confusion, and lethargy
- Has heavy, fast breathing
- Is gasping for air
- Has gaping facial cuts
When to Call 911 for Medical Help
Call 911 whenever you’re experiencing a medical emergency and you are alone.
Don’t drive yourself to the ER if having severe bleeding, severe chest pain, or shortness of breath. Call 911 instead. The same goes if your vision is impaired or you feel like you might faint.
You should also call 911 in case of stroke or heart attack because then, paramedics can provide life-saving care on route to the hospital.
When helping someone else, call 911 if the person is:
- Having uncontrollable bleeding
- Experiencing allergic reactions
- Not breathing or gasping for air
- Involved in a vehicle accident and have neck injuries (or could be injured if moved)
- In need of skills and equipment of paramedics
You can also call 911 if unsure whether the situation is an emergency and let the dispatcher dictate whether you need immediate help. The dispatcher may also be poised to provide step-by-step instructions on what to do before the paramedics arrive.
When to Go to a Walk-In Clinic
While walk-in clinics are inappropriate for acute, life-threatening emergencies, they are designed to address common ailments such as:
- Abnormal rush
- Serious earache
- Severe cold or flu
- Severe migraine, etc.
Walk-in clinics can also address minor injuries such as sprains, back pain, or mild eye injuries.
What is the difference between a Walk-in Clinic, Urgent Care, and an Emergency Room?
Walk-in clinics, emergency rooms, and urgent care centers are rarely in one location. Yet, each of these facilities is designed to address different medical problems, as overviewed below.
Walk-in clinics are characterized by:
- Capability to treat mild illnesses and injuries
- First come, first served bases of operation
- No need for an appointment
- More affordability than emergency rooms or urgent care settings
- Less essential medical equipment such as x-ray machines
- Unavailability of medical doctors (MDs) regularly
- Use of physician assistants
Urgent care centers, on their end:
- Can treat mild and moderately severe illnesses
- Often open each day of the week (call your center of choice to confirm working hours)
- Usually require no appointment
- Patients are attended to on a first-come, first-served basis
- Have MDs on-site at all times
- Have essential medical equipment such as x-ray machines
- Have higher copays than walk-in clinics
- Can treat limb- or life-threatening illnesses and injuries with at most care
- Open 24/7
- Have longer wait times for non-urgent cases than urgent care centers and walk-in clinics
- Prioritizes patients with severe conditions
- Are well equipped with the necessary medical equipment
- Have nurses, doctors, and specialists available at all times
- Are costlier than urgent care centers and walk-in clinics
How Does Poipu MD Help Patients
At Poipu MD, we deliver mobile medical care, bringing healthcare to your door. Our mobile medical service goes beyond digital to include mobile doctor services. And we strive to provide at most care whether the patient is in our clinics or their home.
We deliver walk-in urgent care services, clinic appointments, corporate services, physical exams, and COVID tests. Our health facility is equipped to handle most illnesses, bites, injuries, and allergic reactions.
We are guided by transparency, convenience, and hospitality in our care delivery approaches. Contact us today to book a same-day appointment.