We support the good news about our community's cultural diversity since 2009

To Your Health

Urgent care vs. the emergency room


Dr. Roger Hicks 

One thing we all know about illnesses and injuries is they can happen anytime. Bones break and fevers spike at all hours of the day and night, both during the week and on weekends and holidays.

This has left people wondering how they can get the care they need quickly and efficiently, especially if something happens “after hours.” Many go to their local hospital emergency department for treatment of problems that, while needing treatment that day, did not necessarily constitute an emergency. 

The increasing availability and popularity of urgent care centers has given patients options but has also led to questions. When is it appropriate to go to an emergency department, and when is an urgent care clinic a better choice?

If you have a life or limb-threatening medical problem, or an injury involving an amputation or a severe wound, you need an emergency department. Examples are a possible heart attack (with symptoms including chest pain or left arm or jaw pain), signs of a stroke (such as sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, slurred speech, severe and unexplained headache, or loss of consciousness), severe shortness of breath or bleeding, coughing up or vomiting blood, and suicidal or homicidal feelings. If you need an ambulance to get to a doctor, you need an emergency department.

Emergency departments specialize in managing catastrophic injuries and illnesses and must be staffed and equipped to do so 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That is one reason care in an ED is so expensive. 

But let’s say you have an unexpected illness or minor injury, like a cut finger or a possible broken bone. You need attention now, but your problem is not life or limb- threatening. You call your primary care physician (PCP) but can’t get a timely appointment or learn that your PCP doesn’t handle lacerations or fractures. Or perhaps the office is closed, or, like many people, you don’t have a local PCP. An urgent care clinic is your best choice. Wait times are usually shorter than in an emergency department, and the cost of treatment for the same thing is much less. 

Urgent care centers specialize in promptly diagnosing and treating such sudden health care needs. Common urgent care problems include simple fractures, sprains and strains, lacerations, abrasions, bites and boils. Urgent care clinics are designed for these and other common maladies, and you will avoid what is usually the higher cost and longer wait time found at the local ER. 

Urgent care centers also regularly treat eye, ear and throat problems along with respiratory infections, gastrointestinal disorders, sexually transmitted infections, urinary tract infections. They can also detect and provide initial treatment for more serious problems that may require a consultation or transfer. In addition, they are a great resource for commercial drivers license exams, camp, school and sports physicals. Most treat workers compensation injuries, many provide travel medicine consultations, vaccinations, and dispense some prescription medications. 

Like everything else in the world, the quality of urgent care centers varies. A good index of excellence for a health care facility – far more reliable than Yelp! – is whether or not it is accredited by a national organization. Accredited urgent care centers must have x-ray, ECG and lab services available onsite and meet rigorous quality standards.

Many people use the ER as a place to receive non-emergency medical care because their doctor’s office is closed or because they don’t have a doctor. This inappropriate use can overload emergency departments, contributing to long wait times there and to our high cost of medical care.

There is little doubt that when illness or health issues occur, patients want to be treated as quickly as possible. The increased availability of urgent care facilities such as Yubadocs gives an affordable and practical option. 

A director of the Urgent Care Association of America from 2011 to 2017, Dr. Roger Hicks served as the Association’s treasurer and then secretary. He is a founder and current board member of the Urgent Care Assurance Company, a malpractice company specializing in urgent care. He is the founding President of the California Urgent Care Association. He is also the founding president of the South Yuba River Citizens League and served on SYRCL’s Board of Directors for 30 years.