Cheryl woke up excited to leave for a long-awaited family vacation to Mexico. But her three-year-old son woke up with a horrible earache.

Cheryl rushed him to the neighborhood urgent care center, fearing a canceled trip or a screaming toddler on the plane. The doctor quickly diagnosed an ear infection and prescribed the needed medications. Antibiotics handled the infection, and the painkiller with codeine made the flight to Cancun bearable for everyone.

It was two years earlier that Cheryl woke up with severe abdominal pain and called her own physician. After hearing her story, the doctor told Cheryl to go straight to the emergency room. One ruptured appendix and a week in the hospital later, she went back home and returned to work.

Both of these health events required immediate attention, but only one demanded the level of care offered at a traditional emergency room. Unfortunately it’s not always this clear which setting is right for individual medical problems.

Understanding Urgent Care

McKinney Online - Dr. David Laughlin is medical director
of E-Care Emergency Centers, which offer
both urgent and emergency care.

Dr. David Laughlin is medical director of E-Care Emergency Centers, which offer both urgent and emergency care.

 

The concept of urgent care centers came about in the early 1970s, when physicians noticed the gap between the doctor’s office and the emergency room. They wanted to provide an option for patients who didn’t require the facilities and specialists available in hospitals. Today there are more than 9,000 urgent care centers in the U.S., and they are a permanent piece of the medical care landscape.

Dr. David Laughlin is medical director of E-Care Emergency Centers, which offer both urgent care and emergency care. He explains that urgent care centers are available to care for you when you can’t get in to see your primary care physician. An urgent care center can provide immediate care that is faster and less expensive than an emergency room.

You will get family-centered treatment at an urgent care facility, Laughlin said. His goal at E-Care is to “treat you like my grandma.” It’s easy to understand why this isn’t always possible in an emergency room, where staff members might be dealing with multiple life-and-death situations. But an urgent care facility can provide personalized care when your regular physician isn’t available.

The Emergency Room

The term “urgent” can be misleading. Urgent care centers are not the same as emergency rooms, and patients with life-threatening illnesses are better off calling 911 or finding a ride to the hospital emergency room (ER).

 

 

In the 1800s, general practitioners served as emergency physicians. They were on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. House calls were their primary means of addressing emergency situations. Throughout the early 20th century, the concept of medical specialties went from unusual to mainstream. Hospitals became the site of care for serious illness. Emergency rooms were a natural outgrowth of these changes and acted as a site for receiving patients who needed hospital admission.

Medical Center of McKinney’s The ER at Stonebridge
will be opening in January 2015.

Medical Center of McKinney’s The ER at Stonebridge will be opening in January 2015.

 

Today emergency medicine has grown into a specialty of its own with a large body of research to guide the way specialists treat patients. Because of the highly specialized skills of emergency medicine physicians, the availability of specialists and the access to technology for imaging and laboratory needs, emergency rooms are equipped to deal with the most severe medical problems.

In fact, Baylor Medical Center at McKinney doubled the size of their emergency department this past summer in order to better serve the emergency medical needs of the community. Dr. Tim Hartman is medical director for the Medical Center of McKinney’s ER at Stonebridge, a freestanding emergency room currently being built in northwest McKinney. Hartman explains that emergency departments are staffed by board-certified emergency medicine specialists, and they have full diagnostic capabilities, including CT scans, ultrasound, complete laboratories and more. When a patient has experienced significant trauma, if their vital signs are abnormal or if there is another life-threatening scenario, the emergency room is the appropriate place to seek care.

Emergency care is more costly than urgent care, which is why patients with less serious illnesses are better off being seen in an urgent care facility, Hartman said. It keeps costs down and frees up facilities and staff to deal with life-threatening emergencies.

How to Choose?

Joe Minissale, president of Methodist McKinney Hospital, said patients who have serious symptoms that could be life-threatening or lead to disability should call 911 or go to an emergency room. Situations like chest pain, difficulty breathing, electrocution or sudden confusion require a trip to the emergency room.

One of the area E-Care Emergency Centers.

One of the area E-Care Emergency Centers.

 

If you are experiencing an illness that you would typically see your primary care provider for, but you can’t get an appointment, a trip to an urgent care center is probably more appropriate than an emergency room visit. For example, upper respiratory symptoms such as a cough and sore throat, an earache or a minor injury can be handled expertly at an urgent care facility.

Urgent care facilities offer other services, as well. If you need a flu shot or an athletic physical, they can often provide these services quickly and at a low cost.

Before an Emergency

Before the need for immediate medical care arises, know the location of a nearby urgent care facility and emergency department. Nothing is worse than missing an exit when you need to get to the doctor right away.

Find out if you need pre-approval from your insurance company. Insurers must pay if you seek emergency care for what you legitimately believe is a medical emergency. But if you have time and they require pre-approval, this step can save you money.

 

 

Whether you are going to the ER or the urgent care clinic, Hartman suggests preparing in advance, if possible. Be sure to have a list of your medications and medical problems to show the doctor. The facility won’t have your medical records immediately available. This information can help them gain a more comprehensive understanding of your health to make the best diagnostic and treatment decisions. It’s a good idea to have the contact information for your primary care physician available, too.

If you have any questions about the right treatment setting for a health care need, call your primary physician. A conversation with the doctor on call can offer quick guidance so that you can receive proper care as soon as possible. With a little planning, you can make the right choice between emergency care and urgent care, which means better medical care for you and a more efficient health care system for everyone.

BE PREPARED

  • Know the locations of your urgent care center and emergency department
  • Find out if your insurance requires pre-approval for an ER visit

Take the following to an emergency department or urgent care center:

  • Primary care physician name and phone number
  • Insurance card
  • List of medical conditions and medications

McKinney Area Emergency Departments (Chamber of Commerce members):

Baylor Medical Center at McKinney
5252 W. University Dr., McKinney

Centennial Medical Center
12505 Lebanon Rd., Frisco

Children’s Health Children’s Medical Center Plano
7601 Preston Rd., Plano

The ER at Stonebridge
U.S. Highway 380 and Custer Road (Opening January 2015)

Medical Center of McKinney
4500 Medical Center Dr., McKinney

Methodist McKinney Hospital
8000 Eldorado Pkwy., McKinney

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Allen
1105 Central Expy., Allen

Victory Medical Center – Craig Ranch
6045 Alma Rd., McKinney

McKinney Area Urgent Care Centers (Chamber of Commerce members):

CareNow
809 N. Central Expy., McKinney

E-Care Emergency Centers
2810 Hardin Blvd., McKinney
16151 Eldorado Pkwy., Frisco

Medical City Children’s Urgent Care
8080 State Highway 121, McKinney

MedPost Urgent Care
6700 Virginia Pkwy., McKinney

Urgent Care Kids
6171 Virginia Pkwy., McKinney

 

About the author: Amy Rogers, M.D., is a freelance writer living in McKinney. Contact her at amy@smartypantsmediasolutions.com.