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Urgent Care vs. Emergency Rooms

Mary fell and cut her hand. Nothing appears broken, but the wound looks like it needs stitches. Should she go to an urgent care center or the emergency room (ER)? Richard is having problems catching his breath. Should he wait until morning to call his own doctor or should he go to urgent care or the emergency room?

With all the healthcare facility options today, it may be confusing to know where to seek medical care outside of your regular doctor or healthcare provider. A general rule on seeking care comes down to this: Does the illness or injury present an immediate, serious threat to one’s health or life? If the condition is life-threatening and needs treatment immediately, go to the ER.

In Mary’s case, it seems like the bleeding from the cut is controlled and an urgent care doctor can determine if she needs stitches. In Richard’s case, breathing problems can indicate signs of a more serious condition like a blood clot or heart attack. He should seek care in an emergency room.

Benefits of Urgent Care Treatment

Urgent care centers began to crop up across the country in the 1990s to fill the void between primary care physicians and emergency room services. If a health problem is a minor injury or illness, people can take advantage of urgent care for after-hours medical treatment when primary doctor offices are closed in the evenings and on weekends. There are an estimated 9,300 urgent care centers across the U.S. and most are open seven days a week until 9 p.m. or later. No appointment is necessary at urgent care, and staff are typically family care or emergency room physicians or physician assistants. Urgent care centers can offer basic x-rays and lab tests and most general medical equipment for treating common conditions such as:

  • Flu
  • Bronchitis
  • Ear infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Animal and insect bites
  • Minor cuts
  • Sprains and broken bones
  • Vomiting and diarrhea

Most urgent care procedures are covered by insurance, and the average cost per visit is around $150, depending on the level of care and the person’s insurance co-pay. Many patients choose urgent care to save time waiting in the ER. Walk-in clinics often found in pharmacies and grocery stores are another convenient option. Walk-in clinics, typically staffed by nurse practitioners, offer limited services including flu shots, treatments for colds, and care for minor sprains.

Benefits of Emergency Room Care

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 136.9 million people visited the emergency room in 2015. Of these visits, 15 percent arrived by ambulance, and roughly a third of all the patients were seen in fewer than 15 minutes — most waited an hour or more. Among patients 65 and older, the CDC finds from 2012-2013 data that older women visited the emergency room for injury more often than older men — 14 per 100 women compared to 10 per 100 men. ER visits for seniors with an illness were essentially the same for older men and women.

For more serious medical conditions such as severe burns, deep cuts, electrical shock, gunshot wounds, stroke and heart attack, hospital emergency rooms are the best choice. Hospital ERs can offer higher levels of care and have a full range of diagnostic equipment including CAT scan and MRI machines to evaluate patients.

Federal law requires hospital ERs to provide care to all patients regardless of their ability to pay. ERs are often backed up with treating people who view emergency rooms as their sole healthcare provider versus using ERs for true health emergencies. Another downside to ER care is the cost. A 2013 National Institutes of Health study lists the median cost of an ER visit at $1,233. Other estimates note the cost is closer to $2,000.

When to Call 911

As the number of U.S. older adults continues to climb, urgent care centers and ERs will continue to play a significant role in treating acute medical problems for America’s seniors. Some symptoms and ailments are hard for the everyday person to determine if the conditions need emergency treatment. If in doubt, it is better to head to the emergency room. Always remember, if a person shows any signs of a life-threatening condition or is unconscious or unresponsive, call 911. Paramedics can administer care on the ride to the emergency room, which can mean the difference between life and death.

Author Beth Lueders

An award-winning journalist who has documented stories in nearly 20 countries, Beth Lueders is an author, writer and speaker who frequently reports on diverse topics, including aging and health issues for both U.S. and international corporations.

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