What Urgent Care Clinics Are and When You Should Use Them


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Your primary care physician is the heart of your medical team. He or she is meant to be your first point of contact when something ails you. The trouble is, sometimes those ailments arise when your primary care physician isn’t available. With growing demand for their services, primary care physicians are often overbooked and hard to reach. To meet the nation’s growing health care needs, the U.S. will need to add nearly 52,000 primary care physicians by 2025. So should you do if you need medical attention but can’t reach your primary care physician?

Many opt to visit the Emergency Room, thinking it’s the only other available to them. This can be a costly and time-consuming mode of getting treatment, however. A far better option in non-life-threatening instances is a walk in urgent care clinic.

What are urgent care clinics?

Urgent care clinics are designed to fill in the gaps in your primary care. While an Emergency Room is intended to provide care in cases of life-threatening illness or injury, a walk in urgent care center can provide medical treatment when your condition isn’t severe enough to warrant a trip to the ER, but is such that you can’t wait for your primary care physician’s next available appointment. If you have an accident or develop symptoms that require care before your doctor can see you, visit a walk in clinic.

Urgent care clinics are often open outside of regular business hours. One national survey found that over 66% of urgent care centers are open before 9:00 am during the work week, over 45% are open on Saturdays, and over 31% are even open on Sundays. With their more extended hours, urgent care units are often more accessible than primary care physicians.

When should I use an urgent care clinic versus the emergency room?

While urgent care clinics are ideal for receiving medical treatment that can’t wait for your primary care physician, there are times the emergency room is necessary. Emergency rooms are more likely to have the equipment necessary for more extreme medical care. For instance, 70% of urgent care clinics can provide intravenous fluids when required. Almost 50% have pre-packaged prescription pharmaceuticals available for point-of-care dispensing. Despite this, there are times when it’s still wisest to visit an emergency room.

If you’re experiencing any off the following symptoms, head for the emergency room instead of the nearest walk in urgent care center:

  • Compound fracture (when the bone protrudes from the skin)
  • Severe difficulty breathing or chest pain
  • Severe, uncontrollable bleeding
  • Deep cuts or gunshot wounds
  • Moderate to severe burn
  • Poisoning
  • Serious neck, back, or head injury
  • Seizures, convulsions, or loss of consciousness
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Signs of a heart attack or stroke (such as: chest pain which lasts longer than two minutes, sudden numbness, slurred speech, confusion, weakness, or loss of vision)
  • Problems related to a pregnancy
  • Fever in a baby less than 3 months old
  • Suicidal or homicidal thoughts or feelings

On the other hand, if you’re experiencing nay of the following conditions or symptoms, an urgent care clinic is a better choice:

  • Sprains and strains
  • Minor fractures or broken bones, such as those to the fingers or toes
  • Mild to moderate breathing difficulties
  • A cut that isn’t bleeding a lot but will require stitches
  • Fever or flu symptoms
  • Severe sore throat
  • Vomitting, diarrhea, or dehydration
  • Skin infections or rashes
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Eye irritation
  • If you need diagnostic services such as laboratory tests or an X-ray

Why should I choose an urgent care clinic over the emergency room?

Besides being more accessible than your primary care physician, urgent care clinics have two major benefits over an emergency room:

  1. Shorter wait times

    Urgent care clinics often have shorter wait times than the Emergency Room. Almost 70% report wait times of less than 20 minutes. Just under 30% of walk in clinics report wait times between 21 minutes and 40 minutes and only 3% have wait times of over 40 minutes.
  2. Lower cost for treatment

    Urgent care clinics are less expensive than the Emergency Room. For the same diagnosis, treatment at an urgent care center could cost anywhere from $228 to $583 less than treatment at an Emergency Room.

Urgent care clinics are not meant to replace your primary care physician or an emergency room. If you or someone else is experiencing a life-threatening medical problem that requires immediate attention, call 9-1-1.

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