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Choosing the Urgent Care Clinic or the Emergency Room

by Kathie Hughes Kenway

You have a medical problem and can’t get an appointment with your doctor for a few days. You want to get it checked out – should you go to the urgent care clinic or the hospital emergency room?

First off, if you are having any kind of serious problem, go to the nearest emergency room as soon as possible.

Such conditions include:

  • Chest pain
  • Stroke symptoms (weakness on one side, facial droop, or sudden change in vision or speech)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Traumatic head injury
  • Persistent or sharp, sudden abdominal pain
  • Severe or uncontrolled bleeding
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizure
  • Multiple or complicated bone breaks
  • Confusion, major depression or other changes in mental status

For less serious issues the urgent care may be able to handle your needs, saving you time and money. These clinics provide walk-in care for non-emergencies and often are open from early in the morning until late at night. If you’re nursing a sore ankle after an evening softball game, the urgent care center could be the right place for you. Most of them aren’t open 24 hours a day and may close on holidays, so you might call ahead before you go.

Conditions suitable for the urgent care clinic include:

  • Coughs, colds and sore throats
  • Fever
  • Flu symptoms
  • Ear infections
  • Asthma (unless severe)
  • Mild allergic reactions
  • Skin irritations or rashes
  • Sprains and strains
  • Minor burns or injuries
  • Small broken bones
  • Animal bites
  • School or sports physicals
  • Flu vaccinations

You will probably spend less time at the urgent care clinic than at the emergency room. At the ER, patients are seen in order of need. Your minor illness or injury will be treated after more serious conditions, and on busy days you might be waiting for a long time before you receive treatment.

If you’re covered by health insurance, your urgent care co-pay is probably much less than the co-pay for the ER. If you’re paying out of pocket, the costs at urgent care clinics are usually lower than those at the emergency room. So the clinic is a good choice for many common ailments.

Urgent care clinics may not have the equipment needed to perform certain tests. If the medical professionals determine that you need a higher level of care, they will refer you to the closest ER and may call ahead to alert their staff.

Remember, for any life-threatening or otherwise serious condition, always get to the nearest emergency room as quickly as you can. Ask a neighbor or friend to drive you, or call 911 if you aren’t able to get there safely on your own.



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