Editor’s note: This post was updated August 2017 to include telehealth and Care My Way information.
Urgent care, telehealth and emergency care have things in common, but their differences should be most important to you.
Urgent Care and telehealth: For conditions that aren’t life-threatening
Urgent care is for injuries and illnesses that need care fast but are not life threatening. Board-certified providers treat problems and may suggest follow-up with primary care doctors.
According to Dr. William Melms, an urgent care physician at Marshfield Clinic, “what we don’t want to see are people who’re afraid they’re having heart attacks or stroke. Heart attack and stroke means time is of the essence. Going to urgent care first – delays care.”
His advice: Call ahead so trained staff can help guide this decision.
Some urgent care locations see people when primary care is unavailable, especially in tourist areas.
“Our goal is to get those people we see to go to a primary care doctor for follow up,” Melms said.
Telehealth is another option for non-life-threatening conditions. With telehealth, you can be seen by a provider without leaving home. At Marshfield Clinic, Care My Way uses phone and video services to care for patients with constipation, heartburn, flu, sinus infection, allergies, strep throat and many other illnesses.
Nurse practitioners staff Care My Way. Every time a nurse practitioner sees a patient through Care My Way, that patient’s primary care doctor receives a report of the visit to review.
Emergency Care: When it is serious or life-threatening
Emergency care is for serious medical conditions when delaying care could cause permanent harm or death. It’s not for routine care, said Dr. Michael J. Schaars, a Marshfield Clinic emergency medicine physician.
Emergency medicine often is referred to as medicine’s safety net because it’s a destination for people to get health care when they don’t have any other place to turn. That applies across the U.S.
“Of all patients we see in the emergency room (ER), not many are true emergencies but some need full ER services,” he said. “We see a lot of need for urgent care and office-based care. For people weighing the differences, seeing their regular doctor is best because they know each other. Urgent care would be quicker and less expensive than in an ER, if appropriate.”
ER patients are seen based on urgency of their situation.
“When it’s busy you may wait,” Schaars said. “It’s not a problem all the time but it will still take longer than expected.”
Schaars said trends in emergency medicine show an ER sees more complicated, older, sicker, more challenging patients. Their care takes more time, too.
Cost can be a factor
Both doctors agree urgent care or telehealth services like Care My Way are more cost-effective, “but sometimes urgent care is not the most appropriate choice,” Melms said. “I’ve had people having a heart attack right in front of me, they know it, but they say the ER is more expensive. The visit is driven by cost.”
ER providers see patients, regardless of their ability to pay, but, said Schaars, “people are paying more out-of-pocket, so it’s important to be intelligent health care consumers. We’re able, capable and willing to take care of patients, but primary and urgent care could be better solutions.”
Care My Way is a cash-based service, so you might incur a charge of $40, depending on your health insurance coverage.