Assistant Professor, Emergency Medicine
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Director of Emergency Medicine and Urgent Care
Mount Sinai Beth Israel and Mount Sinai Union Square
You’ve accidentally cut your hand while slicing a tomato for dinner. It’s not bleeding a lot, but looks as if it might need stitches. The trouble is, your primary care doctor’s office has closed for the day, and who wants to wait hours in the emergency room for a relatively minor injury (not to mention pay the bill)? And is it really an emergency?
Nearly 7,400 urgent care centers across the United States provide medical services for just such patients: those with an injury or illness that needs immediate attention, yet is not life-threatening. Difficulty getting appointments with primary care doctors and long wait times in emergency rooms are among the factors driving the growth of these centers, which tend to be located in areas convenient to homes and workplaces. In the right circumstances, urgent care centers are places where you can be evaluated and treated quickly, receive the prescriptions you need, and get back to your day (or evening).
Urgent Care Or The Emergency Room?
Deciding to go to an urgent care center instead of an emergency room depends on the severity of your symptoms.
If you fall and are worried that a bone might be broken, it is appropriate to go to an urgent care facility for an X-ray, diagnosis, and treatment. Likewise for minor injuries like ankle sprains or simple cuts requiring stitches, and illnesses like fever or flu.
Abdominal pain can often be evaluated in an urgent care setting; if you have chronic back pain and are certain it is flaring up again, that can also be easily treated there.
But symptoms of appendicitis (sudden, severe pain on the right side of the lower abdomen) or extreme pain with an unknown cause should send you to the emergency room, as should other devastating conditions like heart attack, stroke, uncontrollable bleeding, and severed limbs.
In short, an urgent care center is the wrong place to go if you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency. If you are having chest pain with shortness of breath, for example, and are concerned it might be a heart attack, call 911 or go directly to an emergency room. The ER offers the comprehensive diagnostic tools and resources that you would need, such as advanced imaging, immediate cardiac blood test results, and quick access to the operating room.
Should You Wait To See Your ‘Regular’ Doctor?
Seeing your primary care doctor is reasonable if you have a routine medical issue and can get an appointment in a timely manner. But if you have a condition that is time sensitive and can worsen without being treated right away, your primary care physician’s staff may suggest you go to an urgent care center.
Urgent care is the right choice, for example, if you have had a cough and fever for two or three days and are worried about pneumonia, which requires antibiotics, or have a sore throat and are concerned it might be strep. Urinary tract infections are another malady that urgent care staff can easily and quickly evaluate and treat.
Who Staffs Urgent Care Centers?
Staffing looks different in each urgent care setting. Doctors who work there may be emergency medicine physicians, family medicine doctors, internists, or pediatricians if the practice sees kids. Some centers are also staffed by medical providers like physician assistants or nurse practitioners. The benefit of having emergency doctors working in urgent care is that they are best able to identify mild symptoms of serious conditions that need a more advanced diagnostic workup than urgent care centers can typically provide. As in the ER, staff can refer you to a specialist if needed.
Urgent Care Centers Provide A Range Of Testing Services
Though emergency rooms have more extensive testing capabilities, urgent care centers generally provide standard diagnostic services, such as X-ray imaging and blood tests. Some centers offer additional tests, like CAT scans, ultrasounds, and mammography. Unlike in an emergency room, results of some tests may take a day or so. However, many urgent care centers offer “point-of-care” testing, where results of a limited number of tests, such as certain blood tests, urinalyses, or rapid strep tests, are returned within about 10 minutes.
Convenient And Affordable
Convenient hours of operation make urgent care centers an attractive option for many patients. The centers are usually open in the evenings and on weekends, when many standard doctors’ offices are closed. You can just walk in (you don’t need an appointment), and typically wait 30 minutes or less to be seen. In many instances, you could leave for work a half-hour early, go to urgent care, and still arrive at your job on time.
The costs to patients are on par with those of regular doctor’s visits, and tend to be much lower than emergency room fees, and most health insurers cover urgent care.
Use Urgent Care For The Right Reasons
If you think your condition is life threatening, go to an emergency room and avoid any delay that could endanger your health. But if you need simple treatment and one or two quick tests, urgent care is an ideal choice.