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Considering An ER Trip? When Should You Head To Urgent Care Instead?

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The proliferation of urgent care centers throughout the U.S. has provided much needed-relief for emergency room physicians and staffers. Individuals who would once have headed straight for the ER for a serious (but non-emergency) condition can now visit a physician or nurse practitioner for treatment, even outside normal doctor's office hours. But how can you decide whether your condition merits an ER visit or is more appropriate for urgent care? Read on for a few factors to consider the next time you need to decide where to seek medical treatment. 

Can It Safely Wait Until Morning?

After the dinner hour, emergency rooms often fill up with patients who need medical attention but who might have headed to their doctor's office, not the ER, had the condition revealed itself earlier in the day. Most urgent care centers have extended hours to accommodate these situations; however, few offer the 24-hour care available at an ER. But if the condition isn't serious and you don't think it's likely to worsen before morning, waiting and visiting an urgent care center as soon as it opens can save you money and waiting time. 

Do I Need More Than Stitches?

In addition to treating illnesses, urgent care centers are also equipped to handle minor contusions and even provide stitches. But if you need the assistance of a plastic surgeon (if, for example, you require stitches in your face or a sensitive area) or require X-rays, you're likely to wind up in the ER even if you begin your journey at urgent care. 

However, being transferred from urgent care to an ER isn't appreciably more expensive than going straight to the ER. If you're not positive that you'll need X-rays or even stitches, it can be more prudent to go to urgent care first. Taking this step can significantly reduce your overall medical expenses if a doctor or nurse practitioner ultimately decides that your injuries aren't severe enough to require an ER visit. 

How Long Can I Wait?

Depending on the city, the time of day, and the time of year, ER wait times can range from a few minutes to half a day or more. And unlike the DMV, there's not usually an "estimated wait time" available. On the other hand, urgent care centers often permit online check-in and will provide users with an estimate of how long they'll wait to be seen. 

Even if you suspect you need more emergency care than urgent care can provide, getting into an urgent care center quickly and then transferred straight to the ER can often help you avoid the long triage wait when coming in "off the street."

By keeping these considerations in mind the next time you're in need of some medical assistance, you can hopefully cut your wait time and your costs.