Emergency vs. Urgent Care: It Pays to Know the Difference

Saturday, July 10, 2010

By Robert Pachner, MD

On a Saturday morning, 12-year-old Melissa falls while rollerblading and hurts her wrist. Her mother rushes to check on her and sees that Melissa’s wrist is beginning to swell. Melissa is having trouble moving her wrist. Her mom doesn’t think her wrist is broken, but she can tell that it is injured. What should Melissa’s mother do?


It can be difficult for those in need of care to know whether an urgent care center or the nearby hospital emergency department is most appropriate for their condition. In this case, Melissa’s mother should take Melissa to urgent care. But, what can you do to help answer this question when a situation arises? If you’re not sure about whether it is necessary to see a doctor, the best advice is to call your primary care physician. He or she can advise you based on the symptoms.


However, because many people don’t have personal physicians, we recognize that urgent care offers another point of access to quality healthcare. You can call the closest urgent care center and ask to speak with a nurse or physician to find out which facility is most appropriate for your care.


In addition to asking for professional advice, patients can use the following guidelines when deciding if an emergency department or urgent care center is most appropriate.


Conditions that are appropriate for urgent care:

  • Minor cuts with mild bleeding
  • Sinus infections, sore throat or fever
  • Cough and cold symptoms including ear aches
  • Mild headache
  • Rashes
  • Pink eye
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Back pain
  • Injury to foot, ankle, knee, hand, wrist or elbow
  • Minor burns
  • Insect or minor animal bites

Conditions that require an emergency department include:

  • Severe bleeding that will not stop
  • Serious difficulty in breathing
  • Change in mental status (such as unusual behavior, confusion, difficulty arousing)
  • Chest pain
  • Choking, coughing or vomiting blood
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness
  • Feelings of wanting to harm yourself or someone else
  • Head or spine injury
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Sudden injury due to a motor vehicle accident
  • Burns or smoke inhalation
  • Near drowning
  • A deep or large wound
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness or change in vision
  • Swallowing a poisonous substance
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Carbon monoxide exposure
  • Sudden blindness or severe eye injury
  • Partial or full paralysis
  • Sexual assault
  • Pregnancy-related concerns


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