When you think of an urgent care clinic, you might assume that these after-hours practices are designed for broken bones, sudden fevers and the stomach flu. And while walk-in clinics are meant to help you during non-life-threatening emergencies, many urgent care practices also offer a wide range of preventive services and routine screenings to keep you healthy throughout the year. Whether you’ve got an ongoing sore throat or it’s time to take the kids in for a physical, an urgent care center can be a good option. Here are five great reasons to turn to an urgent care practice for non-urgent care.
First and foremost, an urgent care clinic is convenient. Operating hours vary, but most are open every weekday, at least one weekend day and extended evening hours. They try to accommodate people who work a standard 9-to-5 schedule, so you’re likely to be able to come in for a quick appointment when it suits you best. The most convenient part about urgent care practices is that you don’t need an appointment. You may wait to be seen, but it won’t take nearly as long as it would at the local emergency room, and it may even be quicker than your primary care doctor’s office. Not only is this a great feature for when you develop a UTI overnight, but it’s also a plus when you need to squeeze in a yearly checkup between conference calls at work. It can also be tough to set up multiple appointments if you have kids. Pediatric urgent care centers offer a simple solution to hectic scheduling.
If you’ve ever had to go to the emergency room for a late-night checkup because of unexplained symptoms, then you know that “hurry up and wait” is the name of the game in most ERs. Unfortunately, your primary care doctor’s office also takes this approach, primarily because both ERs and physician’s offices are often overbooked and understaffed. Plus, ERs prioritize patients based on severity. Urgent care clinics operate more efficiently because they can. Five Star Urgent Care, a chain of walk-in clinics in New York, reports that their patients are in and out of the office in about 40 minutes on average.
Fortunately, you won’t have to sacrifice quality for convenience. Urgent care practices use real doctors and other health care professionals, so you’ll be seen by board-certified physicians or nurse practitioners.
Urgent care clinics are known for easy access, and there are plenty of walk-in practices throughout the country. According to the Urgent Care Association of America, there are about 7,100 urgent care centers in the United States. That number only includes centers that the UCAOA considers “full service,” meaning that the clinics have X-ray capabilities, onsite labs and extended hours. Top urgent care chains include:
- Concentra Urgent Care
- U.S. HealthWorks
- American Family Care and Doctors Express
- MedExpress urgent Care
- NextCare Holdings
Several of the top urgent care companies in the U.S. have multiple locations in different states. U.S. HealthWorks, for instance, has 190 sites in 20 states while Concentra Urgent Care offers more than 300 clinics in 38 states. MD Now, which is unique to Florida and ranked 14th on the UCAOA list, boasts 22 clinic sites in South Florida. Chances are good that you’ll find several urgent care options in your own city or a neighboring town.
The association also notes that there may be as many as 9,000 urgent care practices if you include retail medical clinics. Retail walk-in centers usually have weekend and evening hours, but they don’t have diagnostic equipment. You could use a retail clinic for cold and flu symptoms, a suspicious rash or to fill a prescription. For other issues, an urgent care facility would be more appropriate.
#4: Personal Touch
When you go to the doctor’s office, you might spend about 15 minutes with your actual doctor. This is because doctors have to adhere to a set of time standards that are dictated by various factors, including insurance billing guidelines. In busier practices, you may even be seen by your doctor’s nurse or nurse practitioner instead. Many urgent care clinics are staffed with physicians, but it’s more common to find walk-in practices that are staffed primarily with nurse practitioners. As a patient, you’ll appreciate the personal touch provided by NPs. Nurse practitioners have many of the same abilities as doctors. In fact, a nurse practitioner can:
- Assess and diagnose patients
- Conduct complete physical exams
- Write prescriptions
- Provide primary, preventive care
- Order lab work and interpret the results
- Follow up with patients for ongoing care
While they don’t have medical degrees like doctors do, nurse practitioners share many of the same responsibilities. They also must have their own degrees, typically at a master’s level or higher, and they have to be licensed by the state in which they practice. The primary difference between nurse practitioners and doctors is that NPs focus on patients while doctors focus on the treatment and prevention of diseases. It’s a subtle distinction that makes a big difference in how you’re treated as a person.
For the most part, nurse practitioners tend to view patients holistically – and that’s a good thing when you’re going to an urgent care clinic for routine screenings, a mysterious rash or leg cramps. NPs will look at the whole picture, taking into account other symptoms and conducting a thorough review before offering a diagnosis. When you visit a walk-in clinic and speak with a nurse practitioner, you’re more likely to be treated with greater attention to your personal welfare than you might be elsewhere.
#5: Early Diagnosis
Not every symptom or illness needs to be treated right away. Some infections run their course without medical intervention. Still, there are a wide number of medical conditions that could be easier to deal with if you get an early diagnosis. Your doctor may not always be able to see you at the first sign of a cold or the flu, but it’s important to get checked out early, especially if it’s the flu. These two conditions share many of the same symptoms, such as congestion and a general run-down feeling. But while a cold is just something you have to deal with for a week or two, the flu can be more serious – and there’s prescription-strength medication that can actually reduce the time you spend in bed.
If you have unexpected symptoms that don’t require an ER visit, but you can’t see your doctor anytime soon, then an urgent care clinic may be your best bet for getting an early diagnosis. How do you know if your condition warrants a trip to the ER? In general, here are some things that urgent care centers will not treat:
- Heart attack symptoms, like chest pain or tightness
- Difficulty breathing, seizures or severe abdominal pain
- Pregnancy-related complications
- Fevers in infants under three months old
- Knife or gunshot wounds
- Heavy bleeding, protruding bones and serious head injuries
- Suicidal thoughts or homicidal feelings
For these and other life-threatening issues, you’ll need to call 911 or visit your nearest ER – and don’t drive yourself if you can avoid it. Urgent care centers can treat a variety of non-emergency and emergency situations, but they’re not equipped to handle life-threatening conditions. When in doubt, seek emergency help first.