Urgent Care or Emergency Room? Assess Your Immediate Care Options

Posted by: BeneFIT Corporate Wellness
Date: January 13, 2015

We’ve all been there. Your son or daughter twists their ankle at an after-school little league practice – or you’re fighting off a persistent migraine before you head into work – or it’s a Sunday and you have developed a cough and fever. Your doctor’s office is closed. What should you do?

According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the nation’s emergency rooms (ERs) had over 136 million patient visits in 2011, the highest number ever recorded. Not surprisingly, more than half (60 percent) of ER patients arrived after normal business hours (after 5 pm on weekdays).

There are many scenarios that warrant emergency care. For example, if you have trouble breathing, are experiencing symptoms of a stroke or someone is bleeding heavily, you would dial 911 or drive to the nearest emergency room. But recent studies show that at least 30% of all emergency department visits in the United States are not urgent and could be handled by urgent care centers or walk-in clinics, saving up to $4.4 billion a year in health costs. Offering longer hours than most doctor’s offices, staff at these alternative care centers are ready to handle a range of non-emergency scenarios, and patients often encounter lower wait times and costs than during an emergency room visit.

“Lehigh Valley Health Network has opened ExpressCARE sites throughout the community to handle non-emergent medical needs,” said Mark Wendling, MD, Medical Director at Valley Preferred. “The goal is to have the emergency room poised to handle true medical emergencies, making sure less urgent care is provided to patients that need it. Simple cuts, sprains and twists, and minor illnesses are appropriate for urgent care centers.”

If you are unsure of whether to head to the ER or an urgent care center, it’s always best to call your doctor. If your doctor’s office is closed, your call will be forwarded to an on-call physician who can advise you on what to do next.

Here are some basic guidelines on how to identify an emergency situation versus an instance when an urgent care center or walk-in clinic may be a safe alternative:

Emergency Room Urgent Care, Walk-in Care or
  • Bleeding that will not stop
  • Breathing problems
  • Change in mental status
  • Chest pain
  • Choking
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness
  • Feeling of committing suicide or murder
  • Head or spine injury
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Sudden injury due to a motor vehicle
    accident, burns or smoke inhalation,
    near drowning, deep or large wound, etc.
  • Sudden, severe pain anywhere in the body
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness, or change in vision
  • Swallowing a poisonous substance
  • Upper abdominal pain or pressure
  • Cold
  • Flu
  • Earache
  • Sore throat
  • Migraine
  • Low-grade fever
  • Limited rash
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Minor injuries
  • Back pain
  • Minor cuts and burns
  • Minor broken bones
  • Minor eye injuries
  • Diagnostic services*

*Note: Services may vary.

Before you find yourself in a potential emergency, learn more about your local options. Obtain directions to the following and put their phone numbers in your phone. Learn more about their hours and range of services, if you are not already familiar:

  • Your doctor
  • The emergency department nearest you
  • Your health plan’s nurse telephone advice line, if available
  • Closest Lehigh Valley Health Network ExpressCARE location
  • Local urgent care center or walk-in clinic

Remember, in the case of an emergency, ER physicians are best equipped to help you. But in non-life-threatening situations, take a moment to consider your options. Your local urgent care center or walk-in clinic may be more convenient, and save you time and money.

The information presented is for your general knowledge and does not replace the advice of your health care provider. All medical inquiries regarding your health should be presented to your health care provider.

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