Let’s say you are get­ting ready to make your favorite break­fast—avo­ca­do toast. You’ve toast­ed the bread, cut the avo­ca­do in half, and are ready to remove the dread­ed pit. Of course, your knife slips and you end up slic­ing your hand—making you the lat­est vic­tim of “avo­ca­do hand.” It seems you can­not stop the bleed­ing with a sim­ple ban­dage so now you need to make the deci­sion on where to go to seek help. Do you choose an urgent care facil­i­ty or the emer­gency room? What’s the difference?

Urgent care cen­ters and emer­gency rooms are both great options for times when you are unable to see your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian (PCP). The rea­sons for choos­ing these facil­i­ties can be because the injury or sick­ness has occurred out­side nor­mal office hours for your doc­tor or that you are out of town when an emer­gency hits. As you know, the first choice for non-life or limb-threat­en­ing con­di­tions should be your reg­u­lar doctor—they will have your med­ical his­to­ry on file and your med­ica­tion list at the ready. When this is not an option, you will need to make the choice on what lev­el of care you need.

 

Urgent Care Centers

Urgent care cen­ters fill the gap between when you are sick or minor­ly injured but can­not see your PCP and when you are in need of hos­pi­tal emer­gency care. Most urgent care loca­tions are staffed by doc­tors or physician’s assis­tants. These cen­ters can get you in and out quick­ly and some even take appoint­ments. Since you will not see your PCP at these clin­ics, it’s always best to bring a copy of all the med­ica­tions and dosages of meds you take. If you have a spe­cial con­di­tion, like epilep­sy, make sure you dis­close that to the urgent care provider you see. In the case of your avo­ca­do hand, your urgent care physi­cian may be able to do minor stitch­es and ban­dag­ing at the facil­i­ty. Most have access to x‑ray machines and basic diag­nos­tic tests. The typ­i­cal range of costs for care at these cen­ters is between $50-$150.

Here are some con­di­tions that typ­i­cal­ly can be seen at urgent care centers:

  • Fevers, flu or cold symptoms
  • Ear infec­tions
  • Bron­chi­tis
  • Cuts and bleed­ing that may require stitches
  • Uri­nary tract infections
  • Vom­it­ing or diarrhea
  • Minor back pain

 

Emer­gency Room Care

Hos­pi­tal emer­gency rooms pro­vide care for life and limb-threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions rang­ing from heart attack and stroke to car acci­dent injuries. Staffed by physi­cians, nurs­es, and spe­cial­ists, emer­gency rooms have access to high­ly knowl­edge­able and diverse med­ical teams.  In emer­gency rooms, care is giv­en to the most seri­ous injury/illness first—not on a first-come, first-served basis. Because of this, wait times in emer­gency rooms are wide­ly var­ied and may be into a sev­er­al hours-long wait. Again, it is wise to bring a list of any med­ica­tions, both pre­scribed and over-the-counter, with you when seek­ing care since the ER will not have this infor­ma­tion from your PCP. Costs for emer­gency ser­vices can be any­where from $50 to more than $10,000 depend­ing on the sever­i­ty of the injury or illness.

Symp­toms that are best eval­u­at­ed in an emer­gency room include:

  • Chest pain or dif­fi­cul­ty breathing
  • Weakness/numbness on one side
  • Slurred speech
  • Fainting/change in men­tal state
  • Seri­ous burns
  • Head or eye injury
  • Concussion/confusion
  • Bro­ken bones and dis­lo­cat­ed joints
  • Fever with a rash
  • Seizures
  • Severe cuts that may require stitches
  • Facial lac­er­a­tions
  • Severe cold or flu symptoms
  • Vagi­nal bleed­ing with pregnancy

 

When faced with the deci­sion to vis­it an urgent care cen­ter or emer­gency room, you have to first eval­u­ate your symp­toms. Once you have done this, ask your­self this ques­tion, “Does this con­di­tion have the pos­si­bil­i­ty of per­ma­nent­ly impair­ing or endan­ger­ing your life?” If the answer is “yes,” then you have an emer­gency and should pro­ceed to the near­est hos­pi­tal ER. If the answer is “no,” then take your tow­el-wrapped avo­ca­do hand to your local urgent care cen­ter for stitch­es or what­ev­er care they rec­om­mend. You will save your­self time and mon­ey by mak­ing a good choice on your care.