Health crises can occur at any time of the day or week; they pay no attention to your primary care provider’s office hours. When an unexpected health event occurs, don’t let confusion about the distinction between the Emergency Department (ED) and Urgent Care delay your treatment.
Read on to learn the difference between the medical care provided in emergency departments and urgent cares.
What’s the Difference Between the ED and Urgent Care?
Type of Conditions Treated
The ED is equipped to see, quite literally, anything that comes through the door from the highest acuity (sickest or most injured patients) to the lowest acuity (people who are well and not in need of emergent medical attention). If you are having trouble breathing, are in severe pain, have a life-threatening illness, or another condition that needs emergent attention, call 9-1-1 or have someone take you to the ED.
If your medical condition is not emergent, but you think it will require immediate care within 24 hours, the urgent care may be a better bet. At urgent care, providers are equipped to see minor emergent conditions that would traditionally only be seen in an emergency room, such as headaches, pneumonia, minor fractures, or minor lacerations. However, there are some limitations to what will be seen.
Hours of Availability
Although the operating hours of urgent cares are generally longer than a primary care provider’s office, most urgent cares are still not 24-7 operations. In Lompoc, urgent care is available every day from 9 am to 9 pm. If your health condition worsens at 2 am, your best bet is still likely the ED.
Patient Volume (and, Therefore, the Wait Time)
At an ED, the patient flow is dictated by how patients are “triaged.” If your initial triage evaluation is suspicious for a more emergent condition, you will be assigned a higher triage priority. This means that the sickest patients get seen first. If you present to the ED with cold symptoms and you have stable vital signs, you should anticipate that you will wait much longer than someone who has been in a serious car accident and has unstable vital signs. This system is purposeful and, as annoying as it may be to have to wait, it ensures that the people who need medical attention the most get it first.
Types of Patients Seen
Healthcare providers working in emergency departments have a duty to see and evaluate every single patient, regardless of age, condition, or ability to pay for treatment.
Urgent cares may sometimes have an age cutoff (i.e. will not see the very young or very old), have certain conditions that they will not evaluate, and typically require some form of payment.
Most EDs have at least one CT scan, and many have an ultrasound and MRI available. Because they are typically connected to a hospital, EDs also have access to hospital resources, such as an in-house lab and pharmacy. This influences the kinds of conditions that will typically be treated at an ED versus urgent care. Many urgent cares have access to an x-ray machine, and a few lab tests, but not the full spectrum of resources available in an ED.
Insurers May Charge Differently
If you are seen for a condition in an ED that could have been treated at an urgent care facility, you may see a higher bill from your insurer. Many insurance plans also charge higher co-pays for ED visits versus urgent care visits.
Direct Admission Relationship (or Transfer Relationship) with a Hospital
If you believe your condition may ultimately warrant hospital admission (i.e. if you have chronic medical comorbidities, or if you have been admitted to the hospital with the same condition in the past), you may spare yourself a hassle by presenting directly to the ED instead of first being evaluated in an urgent care.
If the providers in the urgent care evaluate you and determine that your condition needs to be managed in the ED, you will be redirected there, sometimes via ambulance.
EDs typically have consultant relationships with particular specialists such as orthopedists, cardiologists, OBGYNs, and neurologists, many of whom will actually present to the emergency department and evaluate you on the spot. Urgent cares typically do not have this automatic relationship, although the urgent care at Lompoc Health - North H Center does have specialists oncall.
Ambulances Arrive at EDs
If you call an ambulance, U.S. health care laws dictate that you will be taken to an ED, not urgent care.
Ultimately, you can get help with a minor emergency at both urgent care and in the ED. Both sites are staffed by medical providers who are capable of treating a wide range of conditions. However, true emergencies require emergency rooms. If you are in doubt, and you think your condition may be life threatening, it is probably best to err on the side of caution and call 9-1-1 or go to the emergency department.