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When to Use the Urgent Care Center vs. an Emergency Department

  • Category: Emergency Care, News
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Christopher Johnson, MD

When a sudden injury or illness impacts you or your family after hours, on a weekend, or on a holiday, it can be difficult to know where to seek care: an urgent care center or a hospital emergency department? It’s an important topic for discussion, especially as we head into peak cold and flu season.

Across Southern California, hospital emergency departments are quickly filling up with patients seeking care for respiratory illnesses like the flu, COVID-19, and RSV. Many of these patients could be served faster by their primary care physician or an urgent care clinic.

That’s why everyone, regardless of age or health status, should establish and maintain a relationship with a primary care provider, or PCP. Having an established PCP will not only help ensure that your preventative care needs are met, but will allow you more timely access to care when you become sick. Many PCPs even reserve same-day appointments for established patients who need immediate attention.

Depending on the needs of the individual, a pediatrician, family, internal, or geriatric medicine physician can serve as a primary care physician. Children, especially those under the age of 16, should have a designated pediatrician.

For patients without a primary care physician, or when a timely appointment is not possible, urgent care clinics offer convenient evaluation and treatment from a physician, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner. Urgent care clinics treat a range of non-life-threatening conditions including the flu, COVID-19, and a variety of other viruses. They offer blood testing, respiratory panels, physical exams, X-rays, vaccines, and prescriptions for medication as needed. Urgent care patients can walk in without an appointment and usually see a doctor or healthcare provider within an hour.

Hospital emergency departments are for people who need immediate life or limb-saving care. If you or a loved one experiences chest pain; uncontrolled bleeding; sudden, severe pain; broken bones; difficulty breathing; slurred speech; changes in vision; seizure; or sudden mental confusion, you should seek care at the nearest Emergency Department.

Emergency departments are designed to provide quick testing and results while a dedicated team closely monitors patients. They are staffed by board-certified emergency medicine physicians and are open 24/7. If you arrive with a non-life or limb-threatening condition, such as a cold, flu, or other viruses, the wait at an emergency department is likely to be longer than at an urgent care. Emergency staff will treat the sickest and most emergent patients first.

During the flu and cold season it is especially important that we all do our part to ensure local emergency resources don’t become overburdened and that life-saving services are available when people need them most.

If you’re not sure where to go for care, call your primary care physician or visit an urgent care first. Trust your instincts, and if you feel you’re experiencing a life-threatening emergency, call 9-1-1.

Dr. Christopher Johnson is the Medical Director of the Emergency Department at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura and the incoming Chief of Staff for Community Memorial Health System.