Health Advocate Blog

When—and why—to choose urgent care

When you or a family member needs medical attention, it’s important to select the right place to go for care—but how do you choose? Say you or someone in your family has come down with a sore throat, sinus infection or earache—or you’ve sustained a minor burn or injury like a sprained ankle. Your primary care doctor isn’t able to fit you in right away, and your illness or injury isn’t severe enough for a trip to the emergency room. Your local urgent care center may be the right fit for this type of situation.

What is urgent care?

Urgent care centers are walk-in clinics that provide patients with medical attention when they are unable to be seen by their primary care physicians or their condition is not serious enough to warrant a visit to the ER. The medical staff at urgent care centers can treat a wide variety of health issues, such as strep throat, urinary tract infections, cuts or wounds, and eye or ear ailments. Some urgent care centers can also provide immunizations and medical services needed for travel and immigration purposes. Many urgent care centers can also perform simple laboratory work (like blood tests) and X-rays.

The many benefits of urgent care centers include:

Cost-effectiveness. Many insurance companies cover trips to urgent care centers, but before visiting one, it’s a good idea to check with your insurance company to find out which specific centers are in-network. The cost for treatment at an urgent care center is usually comparable to that of a primary care visit and generally costs less than a trip to the emergency room. (Charges vary according to individual insurance coverage.)

Comprehensive care. The American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine describes urgent care medicine as having components of both family medicine and emergency medicine. Because of this, the doctors at urgent care centers tend to have comprehensive knowledge, which allows them to address a wide array of medical issues. If you do require more extensive care, they can refer you to your primary care provider or ensure you get to the ER for attention.

Extended hours. Urgent care centers often have extended hours. For example, many of them are open past after typical business hours on weekdays, which can make them a more convenient option for someone who works a traditional schedule. These centers are often open on weekends as well, making them an ideal place to go when you or a family member are facing a non-life-threatening ailment but require time-critical medical attention.

Less wait time. Urgent care centers do not require you to schedule an appointment—they’ll happily accept walk-ins. Plus, time spent in urgent care center waiting rooms can be hours less compared to the wait time at an ER. However, check the website for the urgent care center you plan to visit, as some enable you to “check in” ahead of time to minimize your time in the waiting room.

Out-of-town help. Traveling for business or pleasure means you’re probably not near your primary care doctor. If you fall ill while you’re on a trip, finding an urgent care center is a good way to ensure that you get treatment even when you’re away from home.

Save the ER for true medical emergencies. Urgent care centers can quickly and efficiently treat issues like sprains, cuts, fevers and other non-life-threatening conditions at a fraction of the cost.