Urgent Care: What to Know, When to Go

Joanne Helperin

My teenage son was in pain: Something under his tongue was swollen and scary looking. We needed an ear, nose and throat specialist, but the wait at our HMO was two weeks. What now? An emergency room seemed like overkill. Should I take him to urgent care instead? Here's what I learned.

Doctor examines ears of a patient at urgent care.

Urgent Care's Benefits

Going to urgent care (aka "immediate care," "walk-in care," or "convenient care") instead of an ER saves time and money — a great deal of it. Ninety percent of urgent care centers have a waiting time of 30 minutes or less to see a health care provider* versus several hours in an overcrowded ER. Nearly half of all visits to urgent care centers cost less than $150 — compared with $1,354 in an ER**.

The ER is chock full of people who would be better served by urgent care, according to Dr. Franz Ritucci, president of the American Board of Urgent Care Medicine. "To the general public, everything is urgent," he said. "But would you rather go to a hospital and pay a $500 deductible?"

Don't confuse urgent care with "retail clinics" found in stores such as CVS and Wal-Mart or in strip malls. Staffed by nurse practitioners, these clinics can't offer urgent care's breadth of services or treat serious illnesses.

When Should You Go?

The rule of thumb is simple: If an illness or injury threatens life or limb, go to the ER. If it's not an emergency, but you do need immediate treatment (an acute problem), go to urgent care.

Most urgent care centers are open from 8 a.m. (or earlier) until 7 p.m. or later, seven days per week, making it easy for people working full time to visit. No appointment is necessary, and lab equipment and X-ray machines are on-site -- no running to another location to wait for a blood test.

Common Issues Treated in Urgent Care Centers
  • Allergic reaction
  • Asthma or difficulty breathing
  • Mild concussion
  • Back pain
  • Rash
  • Ear infection
  • Fever
  • Sprain/strain
  • Insect bite
  • Respiratory infection
  • Urinary tract infection, vaginitis
  • Migraine
  • Vomiting, diarrhea
  • Cut/wound/abscess
  • Fracture

What Can I Expect?

Typically, a doctor (usually family medicine or emergency medicine physicians) will see you, with the support of nurses and physicians' assistants. You'll receive treatment or be transferred to the ER if necessary. If you need a specialist (such as an ENT), you'll receive palliative care and be sent home to make an appointment with a physician in that specialty. In my son's case, this meant that going to urgent care would likely not have solved his problem . . . We'd just have to wait.

Bring a list of your medications and any relevant medical records if you can. An urgent care center cannot access your records unless it is integrated with the hospital or medical center you already use.

Factors in Choosing a Center

Not all urgent care centers are created equal. If there’s time, do your homework before you go.
  1. Voluntary Accreditation. Ask the center whether it’s accredited by one of the three accrediting bodies — The National Urgent Care Center Accreditation, Urgent Care Association of America, or the Joint Commission — which hold centers to a higher standard in areas such as records maintenance, quality assurance for lab tests, and cleanliness. The percentage of accredited centers is about 25%, but growing quickly.
  2. Insurance Coverage. Check ahead with your insurer to see if the center is covered.
  3. Affiliation. Is the center affiliated with a hospital, health system, or medical group that enables easy access to your primary care doctor, medical records, or specialist for ongoing care?
  4. Longevity. How long has the facility been in business? Longer is better.
  5. Ratings. Read reviews for specific urgent care centers or their physicians on sites like Healthgrades.

Urgent Care Is Growing

Health care industry watchers expect the current number of urgent care centers, estimated at 7,100 to 10,000,*** to grow with the demands of the aging U.S. population and increasing shortage of primary care providers.

As for my son, he got lucky and took someone else’s last-minute cancellation with the ENT a few days later. Going to urgent care might not have solved his problem on this occasion, but the next time the wait to see the doctor is that long, we’ll know our options.

*Urgent Care Association of America, Industry FAQs.
**Urgent Care Association of America. 2014 Urgent Care Benchmarking Survey Results.
***The Wall Street Journal, "Traditional Providers Get Into the Urgent-Care Game," March 20, 2016

Joanne Helperin is a Los Angeles-based writer/editor and marketer. Dubbed "The Research Queen" by friends and family, she’s known for leaving no stone unturned in her pursuit of stories on health, business, news, technology, and lifestyle. She has written for digital, print and broadcast for more than 20 years.