When Should You Choose Urgent Care or the ER?

According to a recent study, 93 percent of Millennials avoid preventative healthcare visits with their doctors and instead rely on urgent care facilities or just check for health advice online. Are you one of them? Then perhaps it is time for a review of the difference between primary care, urgent care and emergency room care so that the next time you are sick or injured, you know where to get help.

Emergency Rooms

Emergency rooms handle any and all emergency illnesses and injuries. There are doctors, surgeons, nurses and other practitioners ready on call 24/7. Emergency departments are generally attached to hospitals in order to admit patients immediately so they can undergo any necessary surgery or treatment.

Because emergency rooms handle so many different types of traumas, illnesses and other emergencies, the wait time and time for treatment can be very lengthy, especially if you have a less severe illness or injury. According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 35.4 percent of patients are seen within 15 minutes at an emergency department. Additionally, roughly 60 percent spend between one and four hours in the emergency room and another 14 percent spend up to six hours.

If you experience an illness or injury that is life-threatening, then you want to call 911 or go directly to an emergency room. Some symptoms to consider include:

Urgent Care Centers

You can think of urgent care centers as the in-between facility for when you have an accident, injury or illness severe enough that you need to see a doctor right away but that is not serious enough to be a true threat to your life. Urgent care centers, sometimes called walk-in clinics, tend to have longer hours than most primary care offices and do not require appointments. They also have the equipment to perform a variety of diagnostic and treatment options in-house.

One benefit of urgent care centers compared to emergency departments is that it takes less time. According to one study, 63 percent of patients with an appointment and 47 percent of walk-in patients had a wait time of 15 minutes or less. The majority of patients (between 70 and 80 percent) also spent less than one and a half hours at the clinic, whether they had an appointment or walked in.

A few examples of issues for which you may head to an urgent care clinic include:

Primary Care Physician

Your primary care physician is your go-to for most health-related care, especially for preventative care. This includes routine blood work to screen for common health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. Additionally, this is the person to go to when you have a cold, flu or other illness for which you need medication but the symptoms are minor enough that you can wait for an appointment. Additionally, you want to visit a primary care physician if you experience chronic symptoms, such as a reoccurring rash or recurrent stomach problems.

Appointments with your primary care physician take some time from your day, but it is comparable to urgent care facilities. A recent survey found the average wait time is 18 minutes.

You should visit your primary care physician for:

How to Choose

There is a need for all three types of healthcare facilities, but they are not interchangeable. Therefore, you want to think about your need and head to a facility that best matches it. Ask yourself the following questions:

When you or a loved one faces an illness, consider the health risk above everything else. If it is a potentially life-threatening problem, such as a suspected heart attack, drug overdose, stroke or similar issue, head to the emergency room or dial 911. However, if the risk is lower, then you may be able to head to an urgent care center or your primary care physician.

How do you choose between urgent care and primary care? Part of that depends on the severity of the situation. The other consideration is the capability of your primary care physician's practice. Some primary care offices have space for walk-ins and last minute appointments. They also have the equipment to handle minor emergencies, such as a wound requiring stitches or a sprained ankle. Talk with your doctor's office ahead of time to see what type of care they can offer.

Take some time when you are healthy to investigate in-network facilities and learn what type of care is offered. Have a plan for the closest urgent care facility to your home and work so that if disaster does strike, you know what to do. You can assess the severity and determine if you need to make an appointment with your primary care physician, head to the urgent care facility or speed to the emergency room (or dial 911).

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