The rise of urgent care facilities has made it more convenient for many individuals to receive timely care and avoid long wait times in the emergency room. However, not every illness or injury can be—or should be—treated by urgent care clinics. How do you determine what’s truly emergent and what’s urgent?
“For the emergency room, we typically think of things like life, limb, or eyesight. For urgent care, I think of things that could wait a day or two to get seen or something that’s not limb or life threatening,” says Dr. Ben Rhoades, an Emergency Medicine Physician at Pullman Regional Hospital. “So, if you cut yourself when doing dishes or slicing a vegetable, you could probably get seen at urgent care. But, if you have a bone sticking out of your leg, you should go to the ER.”
Dr. Rhoades expands upon the distinction by explaining specific issues that should be seen in each facility. Chest pain, head injury, severe abdominal pain, fainting, shortness of breath, bleeding that doesn’t stop after ten minutes, seizures, obvious broken bones, and major burns should all be seen in an emergency department. Ankle sprains, ear pain, mild cough, nausea, or vomiting can usually be addressed at an urgent care clinic.
Cost & Staffing Differences
Two additional considerations are cost and staffing. Emergency room visits are more expensive than urgent care visits; however, one should not “skimp” on cost if the situation truly requires a trip to the ER. Urgent care clinics aren’t staffed as comprehensively as ERs, which is related to the cost differential.
“In urgent care, we often have a mid-level provider and maybe a tech available. In the ER, we have a full-fledged staff, so if someone arrives in cardiac arrest, we have four or five people able to attend to them and give them care that will help save their life. So, when you come to the ER for routine care, having that staff available costs more. Even though we may not be treating you for a significant injury, it’s going to cost more because we have to have that staff available for those that do,” explains Dr. Rhoades.
The contrast in staffing may deter some individuals from choosing urgent care over the ER, even if the medical attention required could be addressed in an urgent care setting. Per Dr. Rhoades, that often comes down to personal preference.
“Sometimes people want to see a doctor. They don’t want to see a physician assistant or a midlevel provider. There’s an experience difference when you are seeing a doctor versus a midlevel provider, just with the increased time in training,” he notes. “Midlevel providers don’t do a residency, whereas a doctor spends three to five years doing a residency before they are out practicing on their own.”
Worth the Wait? You May Not Have To
While larger hospitals may struggle with long wait times in the ER, Pullman Regional Hospital’s size actually makes it an efficient department for handling patient intake. “Our average ER wait time to see the doctor is six minutes. But, we are a small town with a community of 30,000 individuals, so we really don’t have a problem with wait times either for ER visits or for urgent care,” assures Dr. Rhoades.