All too often, illness or injury appear out of the blue: you wake up in the middle of the night with intense abdominal pain. You stumble while carrying groceries up a flight of stairs, and can no longer put weight on your swollen ankle. Or your child spikes a high fever on the weekend.
When these situations occur, we’re often faced with uncertainty about where to go for care, especially if the symptoms seem severe and our regular doctor’s office is closed.
While the answer is not always simple, knowing the difference between urgent care and emergency care and where to seek treatment could save you both time and money.
Urgent care clinics help fill a vital gap when you become sick or injured, but your regular doctor is not available and you can’t wait for an appointment. If you sudden illness or injury is something you would normally feel comfortable addressing with your primary care doctor, then an urgent care setting is probably more appropriate than the emergency room.
Hospital emergency departments provide medical care at any time, day or night. However, unlike urgent care centers, they are equipped and staffed for even the most complex or critical needs, including life- and limb-threatening situations ranging from heart attack and stroke to traumatic injuries following a car accident.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans made 136.1 million visits to one of the country’s nearly 5,000 emergency rooms in 2012. It is estimated that more than $18 billion could be saved annually if those patients whose medical problems are considered “avoidable” or “non-urgent” were to take advantage of primary or preventive health care and not rely on ERs for their medical needs.
The cost difference alone should be enough to encourage people to go to urgent care centers. The average urgent care visits range from $50 – $150, depending on the patient’s co-pay and level of treatment. Uninsured patients face additional charges for things like x-rays, shots, lab tests or casting a broken bone.
Average emergency room costs vary wildly based on treatment, but a 2013 National Institute of Health study put the median cost at $1,233. Other estimates push it as high as $2,168.
The bottom line is that an urgent care visit is substantially cheaper than an emergency room visit.
Then there is a time factor. Patients at urgent center care are seen on a first-come, first-serve basis and average less than 30 minutes from the time they arrive until they depart. Emergency rooms treat patients based on the severity of condition. Patients with life-threatening injuries go first. The average time for arrival to departure is 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Time for the ER
Symptoms that are best evaluated in an emergency room include:
- Persistent chest pain, especially if it radiates to your arm or jaw or is accompanies by sweating, vomiting or shortness of breath
- Difficult breathing
- Any severe pain, particularly in the abdomen or starting halfway down the back
- Sudden clumsiness, loss of balance or fainting
- Sudden difficulty speaking, or trouble understanding speech
- Altered mental status or confusion, including suicidal thoughts
- Sudden weakness or paralysis, especially on one side of the face or body
- Severe heat palpitations
- Sudden, severe headache
- Sudden testicular pain and swelling
- Newborn baby with a fever (a baby less than 3 months old with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher needs to be seen right away)
- Falls that case injury or occur while taking blood thinning medications
- Sudden vision changes, including blurred or double vision and full or partial vision loss
- Broken bones or dislocated joints
- Deep, severe cuts that require stitches – especially on the face – or a large open wound that won’t stop bleeding
- Head or eye injuries
- High fevers or fevers with rash
- Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
- Severe and persistent vomiting or diarrhea
- Serious burns
- Seizures without a previous diagnosis of epilepsy
Urgent Care is not Emergency Care
A study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics found that among patients who had visited the emergency room but were not admitted to the hospital, 48% went there because their doctor’s office was not open.
Urgent care centers are same-day clinics that can handle a variety of medical problems that need to be treated right away, but are not considered true emergencies. Symptoms that can be evaluated and treated at an urgent care clinic include:
- Fever without rash
- Ear pain
- Painful urination
- Persistent diarrhea
- Sore throat
- Minor trauma such as common sprain or shallow cut
If your symptoms come on gradually or you already know the diagnosis, it’s worth calling your primary care doctor’s office to see if you can get a same-day appointment. After all, your primary care doctor knows your health history, including what treatments have worked best int the past and whether you have other medical conditions that need to be taken into consideration.
But if the situation is life threatening or the person is showing symptoms for a life threatening condition such as difficulty breathing, unconscious or unresponsive, call 911 or get to your nearest emergency room.