Urgent care, telemedicine and emergency care have things in common, but their differences should be most important to you.
Urgent Care and telemedicine: 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. Elizabeth Hathaway, an urgent care physician at Marshfield Clinic Health System, “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.”
Her 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,” Dr. Hathaway said.
Virtual visits are another option for non-life-threatening conditions. With virtual visits, you can be seen by a provider without leaving home. At Marshfield Clinic Health System, Care My Way uses phone and video services to care for patients with sinusitis, urinary tract infections, pink eye, strep throat, upper respiratory infection and many other conditions.
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 Health System 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 department (ED), not many are true emergencies but some need full ED 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 ED, if appropriate.”
ED patients are seen based on urgency of their situation.
“When it’s busy you may wait,” Dr. Schaars said. “It’s not a problem all the time but it will still take longer than expected.”
Dr. Schaars said trends in emergency medicine show an ED sees more complicated, older, sicker, more challenging patients. Their care takes more time, too.
The COVID-19 impact
The COVID-19 pandemic created new questions when it comes to urgent and emergency care. For patients younger than 60 who have no comorbidities, Dr. Hathaway recommends home testing and self-isolation if you suspect infection.
“If, however, you have tested positive and are short of breath, have constant chest pain or dizziness, you should seek medical urgent or emergency care, depending on the severity of symptoms,” Dr. Hathaway said. “Patients older than 60 should go to urgent care to be tested because there are early treatments for high-risk patients that are time sensitive.”
Cost can be a factor
Both doctors agree urgent care or virtual visits like Care My Way are more cost-effective, “but sometimes urgent care is not the most appropriate choice,” Dr. Hathaway said. “I’ve had people having a heart attack right in front of me, they know it, but they say the ED is more expensive. The visit is driven by cost.”
ED providers see patients, regardless of their ability to pay, but, said Dr. 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. Lab charges also are added if the nurse practitioner determines the need for this additional assessment.