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Emergency or Urgent Care?

By Rod Moser, PA, PhDApril 15, 2013
From the WebMD Archives

What really defines a true emergency? A serious medical event that may be capable of causing a loss of life or limb is a true emergency. An example would be chest pain thought to be cardiac (a heart attack) or an automobile accident where a victim may have multiple injuries. Abdominal pain that may be appendicitis, a concussion, and an obvious broken limb are other true emergencies. If you have ever sat in the waiting room of a busy emergency department, you will see that most people do not meet the criteria for emergent medical care. Someone with a sprained ankle is likely to wait a long, long time before being seen. They have been triaged to the back of the line, a concept that is really misunderstood by many who feel that it should be “first-come, first-served.”

An “urgent” visit would be several steps down from a life-threatening emergency and would be considered a medical event that could not wait until for a normal, scheduled office visit. A laceration (cut) that may require sutures should be seen in a reasonable amount of time since wounds should be closed by sutures within eight hours or so.  Someone who may have a fracture is an urgent visit, although many orthopedic injuries are often days old when people seek care.

If you walk in with back pain, a cold, sore throat, sinus infection, diarrhea, or an earache….or, if you need a note because you missed work, didn’t have time to get seen during normal office hours, you really have no reason to be seen in an emergency room. Your care would be better served at an urgent care or your regular medical provider’s office. When these folks show up at an emergency room, I can assure that no one is in a big hurry to meet your needs, no matter how urgent you feel your problem is.

Emergency rooms are busy, over-crowded, and unbelievably expensive. Insurance companies are fully aware of the costs, so they often set high co-payments (around a $100 or so) to discourage inappropriate utilization. If you are paying cash for your medical care, you would be a fool to use the ED (emergency department) for a minor medical problem. A sore throat could cost you a thousand dollars or more by the time you pay the ED fee, the lab tests, the doctor’s fee, and a prescription! If your medical care is free…absolutely free…then there are no barriers; no reasons not to use the convenient, 24-hour services available at the ED.

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