When to Pick an Urgent Care Center Over the Emergency Room


Edmonds walk in clinic

It is 4:00 pm on a Saturday. Your daughter fell on the tennis court. She has hurt her ankle. You do not think it is broken but do not want to wait until Monday morning to take her to the doctor, what can you do? Fortunately, you have options other than going to an emergency room doctor.

You may have driven by one and not noticed it. Urgent care and walk in clinics have popped up all over the United States. The Urgent Care Association of America reports that there are about 20,000 doctors working in these medical clinics around the country. Nearly three million people go to them for their health care needs each and every week. Medical professionals at urgent care clinics can treat a wide variety of illnesses and injures that are also treated by the emergency room doctor.

Common conditions that can be treated at an urgent care center:

  • Muscle sprains and strains. Every day, nearly 25,000 people sprain their ankles (about 80% of these injuries are caused by the inward rolling of this joint). This is one of the injuries that urgent care clinics were created to treat. Minor sports injuries like sprains and strains can be treated very effectively at urgent care clinics.
  • Bone fractures. Nearly 80% of all urgent care clinics have the ability to treat simple fractures. These centers have x-ray machines and people who are qualified to read the images.
  • Colds and the flu. In 2012, upper respiratory infections were the most commonly diagnosed illness at urgent care centers around the country. These may make you miserable but do not warrant a hospital stay.
  • Simple wound care. In 2012, the most common procedure of at walk in clinics was simple wound repair. You do not need to see an emergency room doctor for this kind of issue.
  • Travel vaccinations. Many walk in clinics double as travel clinics where you can get your Yellow Fever shot as well as prophylactic medications to prevent malaria. You may want to talk to your health insurance carrier about what medications they will cover. Most do not cover the shots you may need such as Hepatitis B but there are some drugs you can take to prevent Malaria that are covered by insurance. This is one kind of medical treatment where walk in clinics may be better even than your primary care doctor’s office and is definitely not in the repertoire of the emergency room doctor.

There are times when the best person to treat your problem is the emergency room doctor. If you have suffered a serious head injury, stroke, heart attack, have bleeding that you just cannot stop, are in labor, or have a compound fracture that has broken the skin. These are examples of things that need to be treated in the hospital emergency room. This list is not exhaustive and there are other illnesses and injuries that warrant a trip to see the emergency room doctor.

When you are treated by the emergency room doctor, you are getting the most expensive kind of care possible. One upside to the emergency room is that no one is ever turned away without receiving care that they need from the hospital emergency room regardless of their health insurance situation. The downside is that going to the emergency room is often a stressful and scary experience. You wait in line basically with people who are arriving at the hospital in ambulances and in very bad condition. When you are in the emergency room, you are seen not in the order you arrived but in the order decided by the severity of your illness or injury.

The vast majority of urgent care clinics are open seven days a week. At least 85% of urgent care clinics have hours every day of the week. Many are open after most doctor’s offices close for the day. This means that they are very convenient for you and your family. Most health insurance policies prefer people go to urgent care clinics and as a result the copayment they charge for receiving care there is much lower than when you go to the emergency room.

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