If you sprained your ankle, would you go to the emergency room or schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor? How about if you came down with a stomach bug?
Urgent care services have become more widespread in recent years, providing care primarily for patients with acute conditions. The number of urgent care centers across the country continues to grow, but when should you use one of these facilities versus a visit to your physician or the emergency room? Here’s a look at some of the factors you should consider when deciding if urgent care is the right choice for the issue you’re facing.
The Nature of Urgent Care Services
According to the Urgent Care Association of America (UCAOA), there are more than 7,300 urgent care centers in the country. On average, these facilities see three patients per hour and 32 patients per day.
Urgent care centers provide services to patients who need immediate care for an acute illness or injury when their regular doctor is unavailable. They also assist patients when they experience an acute episode of a chronic condition outside of regular office hours.
These centers are not a substitute for a primary care physician or for treating a life-threatening medical emergency that requires ER attention. However, urgent care centers do provide an alternative for patients who need to see a doctor within 24 hours for something like a sprain, an infection or a cold.
Types of Treatment
Urgent care centers are staffed with qualified medical professionals, including a nurse practitioner, a physician’s assistant or a physician — the most common staffing models include all three of these at a minimum, according to the UCAOA.
Urgent care centers typically provide treatment for health issues such as the cold and flu, sprains and strains, broken bones, sore throat, ear and eye infections, allergies and asthma. They also perform routine tests and care, such as administering flu shots, physicals, tuberculosis tests, lab tests and X-rays.
They provide quick access to medical professionals who can evaluate urgent conditions, explained Dr. Teriggi Ciccone, Medical Director of Winchester Hospital Urgent Care-Wilmington and Urgent Care-Woburn.
“This can be especially useful when an appointment with a primary care physician cannot be arranged, or after hours and on weekends, when the primary care offices are closed,” Ciccone said.
“These centers also offer expanded services, such as access to immediate x-ray and lab testing. And minor procedures, stitching lacerations and splinting fractures, can also be remedied here.”
But urgent care services aren’t the same thing as emergency care. If a patient needs emergency care, the urgent care center will transfer them appropriately.
Emergency departments deal with major trauma, heart attacks, strokes, seizures, loss of consciousness, severe bleeding and burns, head injuries, and other major medical emergencies. In a crisis, immediate treatment can have a huge impact on a patient’s health outcome, so it’s best to seek care in an emergency room — not an urgent care center — if you experience any of these conditions.
Some 90 percent of urgent care centers have patients in and out within an hour, according to the UCAOA. In fact, about 92 percent do it in 30 minutes or less, on average.
According to one study, many Americans seek non-urgent care at emergency departments, and as many as 27 percent of ER visits could be treated at an alternative site. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ER wait times average 30 minutes, and treatment times average 90 minutes, which means patients spend two hours on average in the emergency room.
Much of the wait time for ERs has to do with the high volume of patients they provide care for and the way patients are triaged with more serious cases prioritized first. Urgent care services bridge the gap by allowing patients who need immediate but non-lifesaving care to get timely treatment.
Medical debt is a big concern for many. In almost all cases, a trip to an urgent care facility is less expensive than the emergency room. Insurance copays are also less, by and large. The cost of urgent care visits is comparable to doctors’ visits.
Quality of Care
A joint poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found three out of four patients rated the care they received at urgent care facilities as excellent or good. In addition, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, patients receive comparable quality of care at urgent care centers, physicians’ offices and emergency departments.
Not every injury or illness warrants a visit to the emergency room. Whether it’s a cut that requires stitches, a sore throat or a minor sprain, some conditions can be properly treated at an urgent care center first, with follow-up care provided by your regular doctor.
Primary care physicians are there to provide routine and preventative care, but when you need to see a doctor immediately and can’t get an appointment, an urgent care center offers a viable alternative that can provide quality treatment and convenient care.
Learn more about Lahey Health‘s urgent care services.