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Emergency Room Or Urgent Care? What's Right & When?


Chest pains and head injuries require immediate, emergency care. But not necessarily a sinus infection or sprained ankle. The question is: how do you make the right health care choice when time and expense are of the essence?

Patients have a choice of emergency rooms, walk-in care centers or seeing their primary physician. But many are in the dark over what an emergency is and what urgency is.

“The emergency is what we think about when moments count, [and] a life-or-death situation could develop within moments,” said Dr. Paul Glisson, Chief Medical Officer and Vice President of Medical Affairs at Baptist Health Care. “Urgency is more where something should be taken care of on an acute basis, which means it’s happening and needs to be looked at within the next couple of hours or maybe a day or so.”

A third category could involve cases that are less serious than the first two.

“We would consider those non-acute and non-urgent, which would maybe be follow-up for a routine blood pressure medications, those type things where you have setup follow-ups with your primary care provider,” said Glisson.

Since people are different, the factors surrounding why and where they go for medical care are just as wide-ranging. Urgent-care centers are considered the first option for common medical problems, when the primary care physician isn’t available.

“We see all kinds of cases; it can be everything from coughs and colds, sinus infections, bronchitis, to fractures, lacerations,” said Dr. Brad Hawkins, Medical Director at Sacred Heart Urgent Care.

Credit sacred-heart.org
Sacred Heart Urgent Care

Urgent care centers, which have sprung up only in the past 30 years or so, are charged with taking care of patients whose cases are not as severe as those needing emergency room treatment.

“We try to take care of folks that may not be able to get in to see their primary care physician,” said Hawkins. “We [also] take care of folks that may not have a primary care physician. And it also helps the emergency rooms, which are very, very busy this time of the year.”

Choosing what healthcare is best can be determined by the “Three Cs” -- Condition, Convenience, and Cost. The third “C” in many cases is uppermost. According to data from United Healthcare, in Florida the average cost for a non-emergency ER visit is $1,500-2,000. A visit to an urgent care center averages $150-200.

“But it is another alternative on the spectrum,” Baptist’s Dr. Paul Glisson says. “[The] emergency department probably being the most expensive health care you can get. Whereas your primary care doctor’s office may be the least expensive.”

Many people are confused by their choices when an illness or injury besets them. Do they go to an emergency room? Their primary physician? Or a walk-in care center? Dr. Brad Hawkins at Sacred Heart Urgent Care says one rule of thumb, a major one,-is breathing and circulation.

“If someone’s having an acute problem with [their] airway – ‘I can’t breathe’ – stroke,  heart attack, severe abdominal pain, major lacerations, then that’s definitely 9-1-1,” said Sacred Heart’s Dr. Brad Hawkins. “The majority of the time, those coughs, colds, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, muscular-skeletal – we’re here to help.”

But, there are limits. Neither ERs nor urgent care centers are equipped to deal with non-emergency, chronic conditions, such as depression or diabetes. Patients with chronic needs should be seen by a primary care physician.