Urgent Care vs. Hospital ER — Most Americans Don’t Know the Best Option, Studies Show

December 19, 2014 by No Comments

Motion Blur Stretcher Gurney Patient Hospital Emergency

The radio might be telling you that it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but for many people, the holiday season is filled with nasty head colds, food poisoning from the questionable eggnog served at the office holiday party, and embarrassing broken bone injuries caused by a string of Christmas lights and a shaky ladder.

Getting an illness or an injury is frustrating enough, but according to a new poll conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), the majority of Americans don’t even know the best place to go when seeking medical treatment.

Around 54% of all urgent care centers “[market] themselves as alternatives to the emergency department,” Michael Gerardi, the president of the ACEP, has explained to Forbes. Yet according to the poll, 71% of all emergency room (ER) doctors treat patients who first visited an urgent care clinic, but had injuries or illnesses too serious to be treated at these clinics and had to be transferred to a hospital ER with more staff, specialized staff, or better equipment.

These findings are actually quite surprising, considering that hospitals constantly suffer from overcrowding and hours-long wait times. Data from 2010 showed that nearly one in every five patients in the ER had injuries or illnesses that could have been treated at a local urgent care clinic instead.

To be sure, many patients visit an urgent care center not realizing that their injuries or illnesses are serious enough to warrant a hospital ER visit. They are simply unaware that independent medical clinics aren’t equipped to handle certain tasks. Plenty of patients seek treatment at urgent care centers because these centers are much cheaper than emergency rooms, often by hundreds of dollars, and the patients simply can’t afford to pay such a steep hospital bill.

On the other hand, some patients go directly to the ER, because they think it’s the only alternative to a general practitioner visit.

For example, a recent study of the Latino population in New Orleans, released in 2013 and conducted by the city’s Health Department, found that 62% of respondents didn’t have any health care insurance, and 24% had never been to a doctor. Due to a lack of preventative care, respondents often ended up with serious medical conditions, but even then, almost 25% of respondents said that they had visited a hospital ER in the past year while 38% said they had visited an urgent care center.

A shocking 21% of respondents noted that they wouldn’t know where to seek treatment if they needed it, largely because they can’t communicate with the staff at either type of facility.

In general, the best guideline to follow is that urgent care centers can handle any injury or illness that could be treated at a normal doctor’s office, but can’t be treated there because the office isn’t open. Any life-threatening condition — strokes, symptoms of a heart attack, gunshot or knife wounds, or severe allergic reactions, for example — should be treated at an ER.

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