When you can’t be seen by your primary care physician for an injury or an illness, you still have options: urgent care or the emergency room.
But how to decide which option is best? Understanding the difference between the level of care you receive could save your life in the event of a medical emergency.
"Recognizing the difference between an ‘emergency’ and ‘urgent’ care may be confusing, because both (terms) indicate there’s a medical need to be addressed," says Dr. Stan Stacy of My Doctor Urgent Care of Tulsa. "That said, we typically see patients of all ages and treat them for a variety of lesser injuries and non-life-threatening illnesses."
At his facility, medical professionals can diagnose and treat orthopedic injuries, as well as some illnesses. That might include fever, nausea, strains and sprains, or minor wound care.
However, patients with indications of altered mental status, stroke-like symptoms, severe chest pain, significant shortness of breath or an obvious critical medical crisis — "for those things, a person should go straight to the emergency room," Stacy says.
"I think most people have a general sense of how severe their health issues are and most parents have an idea of just how sick their kids are," says Dr. Jeff Dixon who practices with Hillcrest HealthCare System. "If they have the sense that they’re really sick or that they might end up in the hospital, they might as well go straight to the ER."
Typically, urgent care staff includes a doctor, medical assistants and also physician’s assistants to see patients. Urgent care facilities also have X-ray equipment and "basic lab" capabilities, allowing them to perform a urinalysis, drug tests and test for the flu, although these services might differ between urgent care facilities.