Emergency Room vs. Urgent Care: Which is right?

11-16-wellness_er-urgent-care_web_featureIt never fails. What you thought was allergies turns into a full-blown sinus infection over the weekend. You go in at 10:00 pm to check on a fussy baby, and she feels warm. Your son takes a line drive to the elbow at Saturday’s baseball game.

After-hours medical issues are never convenient, and much confusion exists about where to where to go for life’s minor (or major) emergencies when your doctor’s office is closed.

Though there are no hard and fast rules on whether to choose an urgent care center or the emergency room, some basic guidelines are available to help you make the best choice for you, your family, and your budget.

It stands to reason that for major auto accidents, heart attacks, and life-threatening injuries and wounds, the ER is the place to be.

It also makes sense that for recurring ear infections, minor cuts or sprains, and sore throats, urgent care is usually the best option.

But what about the more ambiguous situations where the line isn’t so obvious between ER and urgent care?

Mount Sinai Hospital in New York offers these guidelines:

Seek emergency room care for:

  • Severe chest pain/difficulty breathing
  • Compound fracture (bone protruding through skin)
  • Convulsions, seizures, or loss of consciousness
  • Fever in a newborn less than 3 months old
  • Heavy, uncontrolled breathing
  • Deep knife wounds/gunshot wounds
  • Moderate to severe burns
  • Poisoning
  • Serious head, neck, or back injury
  • Pregnancy related problems
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Signs of heart attack: chest pain lasting longer than 2 minutes
  • Signs of stroke: loss of vision, sudden numbness, weakness, slurred speech, or confusion
  • Suicidal/homicidal thoughts/feelings

Seek urgent care for:

  • Accidents and falls
  • Sprains and strains
  • Moderate back problems
  • Breathing difficulties (i.e. mild to moderate asthma)
  • Bleeding/cuts—not bleeding a lot but requiring stitches
  • Diagnostic services, including X-rays and laboratory tests
  • Eye irritation and redness
  • Fever or flu
  • Vomiting, diarrhea or dehydration
  • Severe sore throat or cough
  • Minor broken bones and fractures (i.e. fingers, toes)
  • Skin rashes and infections
  • Urinary tract infections

If you’re only in need of urgent care services, avoiding a trip to the ER can spare you and your family some time spent in the waiting room while more critical patients go ahead. It might also save you a little money, as ERs provide more in-depth and specialized care. However, in a situation threatening life or limb, quality and speed of care, along with appropriate personnel, become more important than cost.

The bottom line is to trust your instincts. If it seems serious enough for a visit to the hospital, get going. But if your condition is something for which you might usually see your primary care physician, urgent care might be sufficient.

By Candace Hutto

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