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injured child holding ice pack to head

Bumps, burns, fevers, falls. Stuff happens! And sometimes, that stuff is serious enough to require quick medical attention.

It can be difficult to determine the best response in the face of a sudden medical situation. Should you call 9-1-1? Go to the nearest emergency room (ER)? Visit a after hours or urgent care center? Or wait for an appointment to open up at your doctor’s office?

In the face of any medical emergency that you consider potentially life-threatening, always dial 9-1-1 immediately.

Otherwise, it’s good to understand when to choose other options. If you can’t get an appointment with your doctor, you might think the ER is the best back-up plan. In some cases, it is. But not all medical issues qualify as emergencies. Many are better suited for an after-hours or urgent care facility.

Here are a few things to know about emergency rooms and urgent care centers.

ERs Are:

  • The right choice when “life or limb” are at risk
  • Fully staffed with hospital-based doctors, nurses and other health professionals
  • Equipped with hospital imaging machinery, testing labs and operating rooms
  • Sometimes crowded; people are seen in order of the seriousness of their conditions
  • Where to go for loss of consciousness, fainting, uncontrolled bleeding, sudden numbness or paralysis in the face or extremities, difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, motor vehicle accidents, stabbings or severe puncture wounds, poisonings, sudden abdominal pains, vomiting blood, serious animal bites, electrical shocks, fevers in newborn babies

Urgent Care Centers are:

  • Ideal for medical concerns that are not life-threatening but that need same-day attention
  • Usually open earlier and/or later than normal business hours
  • Staffed by doctors, nurses and other health professionals
  • Available for walk-in visits; no appointments are necessary (but you can call ahead to ask about wait times)
  • Often equipped with x-ray machinery and labs
  • Typically less crowded than ERs
  • A good option when your doctor’s office can’t provide you a same-day appointment
  • Where to go for coughs, sore throats, sinus or respiratory infections, ear aches, back pains, generalized body aches, urinary tract infections, eye irritations, sprains, muscle strains, minor cuts or scrapes, nausea, diarrhea, fevers without rash

Time Management

You may have heard about – or experienced yourself – long wait times in the ER waiting room. That’s because people with more critical conditions are seen first, even if they’ve just arrived. So someone with a non-life-threatening issue can end up waiting hours before being seen by an ER doctor. At urgent care or after hours locations, there is less “medical drama” to interrupt the flow. Wait times tend to be far shorter than at the ER.

Dollars and Sense

There can be significant price differences between ER and urgent care/after hours visits. Even with insurance coverage, you can end up paying substantially more at the ER. It’s estimated that the average ER visit costs anywhere from $1,200 to $2,100. Typical urgent care/after hours appointments, on the other hand, average about $155 for people with healthcare coverage. So when it’s not a life-threatening emergency, an urgent care/after hours location can be the far more affordable choice. (Actual out-of-pocket costs depend on your insurance. Consult your policy to learn more about your plan’s allowances.)

Information is Power

Whether you’re visiting the ER or an urgent care/after hours facility, the more patient information you have with you, the better. If possible, bring a list of all medications and dosages taken. That includes prescription drugs, over-the-counter products and supplements. You should also alert the healthcare team about any allergies, especially to medications. Be prepared to summarize any previous medical procedures (like surgeries), and list doctors’ names and dates wherever possible.

Find What You Need

It’s always good to know where your nearby medical facilities are before you need to use them. For a complete list of hospitals where Brown & Toland physicians are affiliated, click here. To find our after hours and urgent care locations, click here. Tip: enter the information for your closest ER and after hours/urgent care locations into your phone’s address book, so you’ll always have it within easy reach!