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ER or Urgent Care - Know Before You Go

ER or Urgent Care - Know Before You Go

With summer winding down, many Americans are stocking up on the season's most popular pastimes—such as swimming, highking, and biking—to name a few favorites. Although days jam-packed with outdoor fun is generally encouraged, it's a schedule that also increases the odds of sustaining an injury.

While it’s hoped that isn't the case, if an accident or illness does occur, ATRIO Health Plans urges consumers to educate themselves—ahead of time—regarding when they should visit an emergency room (ER) versus an urgent care center (UCC). Both types of facilities are important components of America's healthcare infrastructure. Emergency rooms, for example, play a vital role by providing lifesaving services. Many injuries and illnesses, however, are more appropriate for a UCC. Additionally, unnecessary ER visits can result in increased cost and prolonged wait times.

Differences between an ER and a UCC

Understanding the differences between an ER and a UCC can shed light on what circumstances best fit which type of facility. Consider these characteristics:

  • Personnel—ERs are staffed by physicians trained in emergency medicine. UCCs are staffed by physicians, but not necessarily ones specializing in emergency medicine. Emergency rooms also can call upon other specialists if needed, such as surgeons and cardiologists.
  • Equipment/Services—Because ERs are hospital-based, they have access to a hospital's full range of diagnostic equipment and services. UCCs, by contrast, offer a less extensive range of equipment and services.
  • Hours of Operation and Policies—Emergency rooms are open around the clock, 365 days per year. UCCs typically have limited hours of operation. Additionally, ERs are legally required to treat all patients, regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. Urgent care centers are free of these mandates.

When to Visit an ER

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) offers the following list of warning signs—for adults—that warrant emergency-room treatment:

  • Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath;
  • Chest or upper abdominal pain or pressure lasting two minutes or more;
  • Fainting, sudden dizziness, or weakness;
  • Changes in vision;
  • Difficulty speaking;
  • Confusion or changes in mental status, unusual behavior, or difficulty walking;
  • Any sudden or severe pain;
  • Uncontrolled bleeding;
  • Severe/persistent vomiting or diarrhea;
  • Coughing or vomiting blood;
  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings;
  • Unusual abdominal pain;
  • Severe headache or vomiting following a head injury, unconsciousness, or uncontrolled bleeding.

The ACEP recommends seeking ER treatment if an infant, toddler, or child exhibits any of these conditions:

  • Confusion or delirium;
  • A significant decrease in responsiveness;
  • Excessive sleepiness;
  • Irritability;
  • Seizure;
  • Strange or withdrawn behavior;
  • Severe headache or vomiting, especially following a head injury;
  • Uncontrolled bleeding;
  • Inability to stand or unsteady walking;
  • Unconsciousness;
  • Abnormal or strained breathing;
  • Skin or lips that appear blue or purple (gray for darker-skinned children);
  • Feeding or eating difficulties;
  • Increasing or severe, persistent pain;
  • Fever accompanied by a change in behavior (particularly with a severe, sudden headache accompanied by mental changes, neck/back stiffness, or rashes);
  • Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea.

When to Choose Urgent Care

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an urgent care center is recommended for:

  • Colds;
  • Sinus infections;
  • Allergies;
  • Coughs;
  • Flu;
  • Earaches;
  • Burning with urination;
  • Sore throats;
  • Migraines;
  • Low-grade fevers;
  • Rashes;
  • Sprains;
  • Back pain;
  • Body aches;
  • Mile nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
  • Non-severe burns or cuts;
  • Minor broken bones;
  • Eye irritation, swelling, or pain.

If consumers are unsure where best to seek treatment, the NIH suggests contacting their primary care physician or health insurer.