Urgent care vs ER: know the differences

Published 12:30 pm Monday, March 9, 2015

MANKATO, Minn. — Patients in need of immediate care for injuries and illnesses are increasingly turning to urgent care centers, which have become an $11.28 billion business nationwide, according to the Urgent Care Association. And doctors say it is important for those seeking care to understand the differences between treatments available at an urgent care facility, an emergency room, and their family doctor.

The emergency room is for life-threatening episodes, illnesses or injuries that need big equipment, potential surgery or bigger testing, said Dr. Ruth Bolton, regional director of Mayo Clinic Health System Urgent Care in Minnesota. Situations requiring an ER visit include trouble breathing, chest pain, deep wounds, serious burns and drug and alcohol overdoses, according to the U.S. National Library on Medicine.

“It’s something you don’t wait for tomorrow,” Bolton said.

Urgent care is instead for non-emergency injuries and illnesses, such as stomach aches, fevers and strep-throat evaluations.

At the Mayo Clinic Health System urgent care center in Mankato, Minnesota, doctors can treat simple infections, all types of trauma and smaller orthopedic issues, Bolton said. But it’s not for life-threatening situations.

And unlike retail, or express clinics, urgent care centers have the ability to see more injuries and illnesses and are often staffed by physicians.

“We’re really today’s problem today,” Bolton said.

For patients, urgent care can often be cheaper than going to the emergency room. The average cost of an urgent care visit is $155, compared to the $1,354 average ER visit, according to the Urgent Care Association.

Urgent care clinics also offer patients more flexibility in treatment options and nights and weekends availability. As high-deductible plans become more present, people are being more selective and demanding for customer service and convenient hours, said Tom Charland, CEO of the Shoreview, Minnesota, company, Merchant Medicine, which researches on-demand medicine.

Eighty three percent of urgent care centers experienced growth in 2013, according to the Urgent Care Association, which estimated that 3 million patients visit an urgent care center annually.

There isn’t an exact count of urgent care centers in the United States, but the Urgent Care Association represents more than 2,600 urgent care centers and estimates that there are 9,000 centers total.

“Our goal is really to get the patients to the right level of care at the right time,” said Nurse Manager Kerie Olson. “If we can avoid an emergency level visit … if we can get them into the clinic … then we save that patient money.

Gotlieb writes for The Mankato Free Press in Mankato, Minnesota.