When you or your child falls sick outside your regular doctor’s hours, you’re faced with a dilemma: Should you suffer through until Monday, or head for the nearest emergency room? Fortunately, there’s a third option many patients neglect to consider, and it’s a significantly better choice than the prior two in most cases. That choice is after hours urgent care:
- What is Urgent Care?
Urgent care facilities are usually 24 hour walk in clinics. They’ve been around since the 1970s, and can be thought of as a kind of midpoint between physicians and ERs. They handle much of what a regular primary care physician would (but obviously with extended hours), in addition to diagnostic services (blood work, X-rays, etc.) and sometimes minor procedures.
- What Can Urgent Care Treat?
Anything that would normally prompt a visit to your PCP can be treated by an after hours urgent care provider. This includes food poisoning, low-grade fevers, cuts, sprains, strains and other minor injuries from household or car accidents. Some, though not all, neighborhood health clinics can even stabilize a broken bone and give a referral to an orthopedist.
In general, urgent care facilities are very aware of what medical procedures they can and can’t handle on site. If you come into an urgent care clinic with a serious problem, they won’t hesitate to call 911 or send you to the hospital if it’s in your best interest.
- What Should Prompt an ER Trip?
If you’re sick enough that you expect to stay in the hospital, however, you should be going directly to an ER. Specific conditions that should prompt a 911 call or ER visit include heart attacks and strokes. If you’re not sure whether the severity of a physical injury like a cut merits a hospital visit, there are two factors you should often consider: pain level and amount of blood loss.
- Why Not Always Go to the ER?
Since hospitals have more advanced facilities, you might be tempted to always head to the ER. But doing so can lead to long wait times, since less serious problems go to the back of the line in the ER. And when people overload the ER with relatively minor issues, it slows down the overall capability of that staff to handle true emergencies.
While urgent care centers shouldn’t be confused with free walk in clinics, costs are also significantly lower at an urgent care center compared to an ER — whether you have insurance or not. The average cost for an ER visit is $1,500, while the average cost at an urgent care center is under $150.
- Does Urgent Care Replace a PCP?
Keep in mind, however, that you should still go through your PCP for your ongoing health concerns, and even check in with your regular doctor after an urgent care visit. Going to the same doctor over time is by far the best way to ensure long-term health.
Have you used after hours urgent care instead of the emergency room? What was your experience like? Share in the comments.