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Urgent Care: What it is and Why We Need It

By Blue Cross NC | April 6, 2016 | Healthy Lifestyle, Insurance Education

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Not Exactly an Emergency

When is an emergency not an emergency? Statistically speaking, almost all the time.

The last time you were in the emergency room, you probably didn’t need to be there.  But you’re not alone:  most visits to the ER aren’t truly emergencies. A look at this map by The Atlantic shows a stark trend across the country by region, and as they point out, “If you go to the emergency room in the United States, what brought you there is most likely a sprain or strain, a stomachache, or a cold-type-thing that seems unusually severe.”

According to the CDC, of the nearly 140 million yearly visits to the ER, only 12 percent result in a hospital admission. And some estimate that about 75 percent of ER visits could be treated elsewhere.

Many people believe that the ER is the fastest way to get care, but that’s far from the truth.

Here in North Carolina, even big hospitals struggle to get people seen on time. Many patients wait more than an hour just to see a doctor, and a few spend almost four hours between arrival and going home.

Why the ER in the First Place?

There are many reasons people find themselves at the ER rather than at their doctor’s office. Most often, it’s because primary care doctors close at 5 p.m.

In fact, a recent study found primary care doctors are getting harder and harder to reach on evenings and weekends. And with primary care shortages an issue around the country, especially in rural areas, that problem is just getting bigger.

Now, generally speaking, if you’re having health issues you should try to visit your primary care physician. Many doctors’ offices offer same-day appointments, so you should check there first. If you can wait until morning is a good bet if you’re not experiencing a true emergency. These are usually issues like a persistent cough, a headache, or a sprain you can keep iced.

The Urgent Care Solution

If you can’t get a same-day appointment, urgent care centers are another option. Across the U.S., there are more than 9,000 urgent care centers with over 20,000 affiliated doctors. Their aim is to treat patients quickly and efficiently.

Urgent care centers are built on the premise of providing good care fast. A recent Morning Edition piece on National Public Radio put it well: “Urgent care is not meant for life-threatening emergencies, such as a heart attack, stroke or major trauma, doctors’ say. But it is designed to treat problems considered serious enough to be seen that day — conditions like a cut finger, a sprained ankle, severe sore throat, or… infection.”

In North Carolina alone there are more than 250 dedicated urgent care clinics like FastMed Urgent Careplus more than 400 walk-in clinics, including 73 retail clinics (like Target clinics, Wal-Mart clinics, and the Minute Clinic from CVS). Most of these are open seven days a week, and 80 percent have extended hours, including weekends and evenings. Some areas have around-the-clock urgent care options, too.

That’s to say nothing of the cost. The average cost to provide services at an urgent care clinic visit is around $150, which is about a tenth of the average for ER visits. As a patient, your copayments generally run much higher at the ER. And remember those long wait times, with patients waiting almost four hours at some big North Carolina hospitals? Not so with urgent care. In fact, most urgent care centers clock in around an hour for the whole visit, and anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes to see a doctor.

Making the Right Call

We all know it’s hard to think straight when there’s an injury or illness involved. Knowing where and when to get help isn’t just about saving money, it’s about getting care fast so you can get on with your life.

To find an urgent care center in North Carolina, you can use our Urgent Care Finder tool.

Not sure where to go? Check out the chart below for a list of common issues.

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