What is the difference between an urgent care and emergency room? An urgent care center typically has the resources to care for minor illnesses or injuries that occur after hours and can’t wait until seeing your primary care provider the following day. An emergency department is best for more severe or life-threatening situations at any time. Though an ED can likely also treat less serious conditions, there are often higher costs and possibly longer wait times in that setting for those less severe situations. Additionally, not all urgent care centers or emergency departments are the same. Some may have more pediatric specific expertise or resources than others. Likewise, the testing and services offered can differ. Your primary provider is always the best resource to help decide whether your situation can wait until seeing them the next day or whether your child should be seen at an urgent care or emergency department.
What are the benefits of utilizing urgent care? An urgent care visit is often less costly than an ED visit and sometimes wait times are shorter for less serious conditions. That is because the ED will also be seeing patients with more serious conditions who need care more rapidly. In the Emergency Department a triage system ensures those sickest patients are attended to the soonest. However, if facing a severe or life-threatening condition, an urgent care may not be able to provide the level of care that is needed without certain equipment, specialists or other resources that may be needed rapidly in such circumstances.
Are pediatric urgent care locations better for kids? How so? Pediatric patients are generally best served by pediatric trained providers and facilities set up for children. Such pediatric-specific locations and providers (whether primary care, urgent care, or emergency care) have special training, experience and facilities for children. Of course, in some emergent situations, the nearest emergency room is best—particularly in the types of scenarios where a 911 call and ambulance are needed. Families should also be aware that centers that refer to themselves as pediatric-specific may mean different things. For example, some may be staffed primarily by general providers and just have a child-friendly waiting area; others may have some resources especially for children but not others; while other facilities care exclusively for children. Your primary pediatrician is your best resource to navigate this as they likely know the various options in the area and can help direct you to the best care for your situation.
When should we go to the ER? When is an urgent care appropriate? Examples of when urgent care is often a good choice are some of the following when your primary doctor’s office is closed:
- Allergic reactions without trouble breathing
- Fever (if older than 60 days old, otherwise go to the ED)
- Bumps, cuts and scrapes
- Minor head injury without vomiting
- Ear pain
- Sore throat
- Sprains and strains
- Examples of when the emergency room is often the best choice:
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe head trauma
- Broken bone
- Fever for infants less than 60 days old
- Loss of consciousness or being unable to respond
- Severe bleeding
- Severe abdominal pain
How can I be prepared for an ER visit and what to bring? It is always helpful to have a list of medications your child is taking. Also, make sure someone is present who is familiar with your child’s medical history and any active medical issues, and don’t forget to bring your insurance information. If you have time, bring your child a snack/bottle and a simple activity to keep them occupied in case of a wait time. For conditions requiring an ED evaluation where being admitted to the hospital may be a possibility, consider packing a few things like a change of clothes and toiletries.
Dr. Richard Engel is a Pediatric Hospitalist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Associate Division Chief of the division of Hospital Medicine. He is board certified in Pediatrics and Pediatric Hospital Medicine and is active in the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) where he currently serves on the Board of Directors. Raising Arizona Kids partners with the Arizona Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics to bring evidence-based child-health information to our communities.