Imagine it’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, and your kids are playing at the park. Suddenly, you hear your 7-year-old crying. She tripped, and her ankle is starting to swell. Your doctor’s office is closed until morning. What should you do?
Your best option may be to drive to the nearest urgent care clinic, where doctors and mid-level providers, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants, treat patients who have non-life-threatening conditions but still need to be seen quickly.
Because minor injuries and illnesses happen when you least expect it, urgent care clinics help fill the gap when your primary care doctor’s office is closed, often during the evening, weekends or a holiday. Patients are seen on a walk-in basis, so you do not need an appointment, and X-ray, lab and other diagnostic services are often available on-site.
According to the Urgent Care Association of America (UCAOA), more than 3 million visits are made to urgent care centers in the United States every week, and more than 160 million visits occur every year. With 85 percent of the 9,000 U.S. centers open seven days a week and 95 percent closing after 7 p.m.
“Urgent care centers are convenient, necessary and provide the highest quality care,” says Kusum Sinha, MD, a family medicine physician who cares for patients in the urgent care center at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Vista. “Emergency rooms need to be kept free for critical, life-threatening situations, such as stroke, heart attacks and major traumas, but patients need to be able to receive medical care for conditions such as sprains and bronchitis at all hours of the day and night.”
The most common diagnosis seen at urgent care centers is an upper respiratory infection, and the second most common is a urinary tract infection, indicated by pelvic pain.
Other conditions treated frequently in urgent care include:
- Broken bones in the ankle, foot, wrist or hand that have not broken the skin
- Sinus infections
- Minor lacerations
- Eye irritations
- Severe sore throat
- Ear infections
If you visit an urgent care center, chances are high you will see a family medicine doctor. Approximately 47 percent of the physicians at urgent care clinics specialize in family medicine which means they are trained to care for children and adults. Around 30 percent of urgent care doctors are emergency medicine specialists, and 7 percent are specialists in internal medicine, according to UCAOA.
It’s important to remember that true medical emergencies involving trauma or resuscitation need to be seen in the nearest emergency room that is equipped to provide life-saving care — not in an urgent care center.
“If you feel acute symptoms such as chest pain, tingling to one side of the body or difficulty breathing or speaking, go to the emergency room.” says Dr. Sinha. “If in doubt, call 911.”
If you visit an urgent care center and the provider decides you need more complex care that is not available on-site, he or she will refer or transfer you to the appropriate hospital or emergency room. Your urgent care provider may also recommend you follow up with your primary care doctor.
Dr. Sinha cautions that while urgent care services are important for those times you need care and your doctor is not available, they are not a substitute for your primary care doctor who has built a relationship with you or your family. Over time, your primary care doctor learns your health history, your lifestyle and your personality, and can more easily recognize signs of a change in your health. Able to diagnose a variety of conditions, an urgent care doctor can serve as a liaison to your primary care doctor, as well as to the emergency room if necessary.