Deciding between an urgent care center and your primary care provider (PCP, sometimes referred to as a primary care physician) is often a matter of timing. In urgent situations where you’re sick or injured on the weekend or outside of your doctor’s normal business hours, urgent care is an ideal option. Let’s explore the differences between primary care providers and urgent care centers.
What is a Primary Care Provider?
A primary care provider is a health practitioner who provides general care for common medical conditions, as well as preventative care. Primary care providers are often doctors, but they may also be nurse practitioners or physician assistants. Primary care providers can also be:
- Family practitioners– Family practitioners have completed a family practice residency (residency refers to having earned the title of “physician”) and generally treat children and adults of all ages. Some family practitioners also offer obstetrics care and perform minor surgeries. They are board-certified or board-eligible in family practice.
- Internists– Internists have completed a residency in internal medicine and are either board-certified or board-eligible in this specialty.
- Pediatricians– Doctors who treat newborns, infants, children, and adolescents. They have completed a residency in pediatrics and are board-certified or board-eligible in this specialty.
- Obstetricians/gynecologists– Often serve as primary care providers for women who are pregnant or of childbearing age. Obstetricians/gynecologists have completed a residency and are board-certified or board-eligible in this specialty.
Many families have a family or general practitioner they’ve seen for years or even decades, however, primary care providers aren’t limited to family practitioners. A person with diabetes, for example, may consider the endocrinologist they see regularly for their condition to be their primary care doctor.
When to See Your Primary Care Provider
Visit your primary care provider in non-emergency situations for routine physical exams, for new conditions that have not been diagnosed, and for general preventive care. Your primary care doctor can assess the seriousness and urgency of medical problems and direct you to specialists when necessary.
PCP’s are not usually available on the weekends and on weeknights, and they generally require appointments in advance, which can make it difficult for patients to get same-day care. Primary care doctors are busier than ever these days, and in some cases are booked for several weeks or even months. Many patients have resorted to the ER for care when their doctors are not available—this is where urgent care can be a tremendous relief.
What is an Urgent Care Center?
Urgent care is a type of walk-in clinic offering treatment for non-emergent conditions that can’t wait for an appointment with your primary care provider. Urgent care facilities like Xpress Urgent Care are open late on weekdays and on weekends and holidays, and treat a broad range of conditions, including:
- Athlete’s foot
- Bladder infections
- Colds/flus/respiratory infections
- Cuts/scrapes/minor burns
- Ear infections
- Fever (without rash)
- Kidney stones
- Minor sprains
- Poison ivy/poison oak
- Pregnancy diagnosis
- STD treatment
- Urinary Tract Infections (UTI)
- Vaginal bleeding of unknown cause
A Brief History of Urgent Care
Urgent care facilities began to fill a growing need in the 1970s for non-emergency care resulting from the changing medical landscape. At the time, family doctors were making fewer after-hours house calls, and emergency rooms were being overcrowded with people who needed urgent care that couldn’t wait through the night or weekend for their primary care provider. A laceration that required suturing, or a baby with an ear infection, for example, couldn’t wait for a Monday morning appointment.
Yet, while many conditions required immediate care, they didn’t necessarily warrant the life-saving resources of the emergency room. In response to this problem, a number of acute care clinics opened during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite initial resistance from the medical establishment, urgent care centers eventually flourished as their usefulness for providing efficient, cost-effective care was recognized.
Qualifications of Urgent Care Physicians
Urgent care centers are required to follow certain operational criteria set by the Urgent Care Association of America (UCAOA) and the American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine (AAUCM). These criteria state that urgent care facilities must:
- Be open 7 days a week
- Accept walk-in patients during business hours
- Have diagnostic equipment on-site
- Have multiple exam rooms
- Perform minor medical procedures, such as suturing a cut
- Treat a broad spectrum of illnesses
- Have a licensed physician operating as the medical director
Urgent care centers are run by established medical professionals and healthcare administrators, so patients can feel confident that they’ll receive professional care.
Urgent Care Statistics
Urgent care centers are primarily located in suburban neighborhoods—in fact, 75% of urgent care facilities are located within the suburbs. California, Texas, and Florida have more urgent care clinics than other states, and there are around 9,000 urgent care facilities across the nation1.
- Urgent Care Average Wait Time: 15 minutes
- Average Cost of Urgent Care Visit: $200
Benefits of Urgent Care
Urgent care facilities offer appointments on a walk-in basis, and the medical staff can treat a broad range of non-life-threatening illnesses. Urgent care centers are open on holidays, weekends, and late on weekdays, and are generally much less expensive than the emergency room. Most facilities accept PPO and HMO insurance plans as well as Medicaid and Medicare, and many urgent care centers offer direct bill and payment plans for patients without insurance. Many urgent care facilities can process lab tests on site and provide intravenous (IV) fluids, when necessary. Patients can request to have their full medical reports sent to their PCP for continuation of care.
When to Visit the ER
In some instances, it can be difficult to distinguish when to go to urgent care or the ER. The general rule is that the emergency room is designed to provide life or limb-saving care. Go to the ER for:
- Major flesh wounds (lacerations) or burns
- Heart attack or stroke symptoms
- Life-threatening allergic reactions (such as swelling in your throat that obstructs your windpipe)
- Major blow to the head (concussion)
- A broken bone
- Severe pain in your side
Urgent Care Centers Help Reduce Unnecessary Emergency Room Use
There are nearly 130 million ER visits in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, many of which could be handled by an urgent care facility. Unnecessary ER visits cost the U.S. $14 billion every year2. In one study, the median charges to treat 10 different common outpatient conditions in the emergency department was $1,233,3 likely far exceeding what it would cost to treat these conditions at an urgent care center.
Urgent care facilities like Xpress Costa Mesa Urgent Care help bridge the gap between primary care doctors and the emergency room, improving healthcare for consumers.