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Where You Should Take Your Child When They’re Sick

As adults, we’ve come to rely on urgent care as an important part of our medical system. Efficient, convenient and open at irregular hours, urgent care centers are ideal for medical situations that aren’t life-threatening emergencies but also can’t wait for a scheduled doctor’s visit.

Pediatric urgent care can provide the same avenue for kids. When utilized correctly, walk-in pediatric urgent care centers can offer safe, reliable medical care for children.

Urgent care can’t treat everything, however. It’s important to know when to take your child to urgent care and when the emergency room or an office visit with their primary care provider is a better choice.

The rise of pediatric urgent care

As urgent care clinics have grown in popularity across the U.S., pediatric urgent care clinics have followed suit. A 2018 survey found that of more than 7,600 urgent care centers, 21 percent were dedicated to pediatric care.

Some pediatric urgent care centers are operated by private companies, either as a single business or as part of a large franchise, and some are run by hospitals as an extension of their network.

Some of the nation’s leading children’s hospitals, including Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (known familiarly as CHOP) and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, operate urgent care centers in surrounding communities.

Urgent care centers have grown in popularity for a number of reasons: They are open evenings and weekends, when primary care offices are usually closed, and are often located in residential areas close to patients’ homes. Urgent care centers also tend to have shorter wait times than emergency rooms, where patients with non-life-threatening situations must be seen after those with more critical emergencies. Urgent care costs tend to be lower than emergency rooms; a 2016 study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine found ER costs to be 10 times higher than urgent care, even for patients with the same diagnosis.

While general urgent care centers are geared for adults but may also accept children, pediatric urgent care centers are more likely to staff providers that are specifically trained in pediatrics, whether it’s a pediatric doctor, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant. The regulatory guidelines for urgent care centers vary by state, so researching ahead of time can tell you more about urgent care in your area.

When should you take your child to pediatric urgent care?

Knowing the difference between your local pediatric urgent care center, your child’s primary care physician and the emergency room is key to accessing the appropriate care.

“I view the whole primary care doctor-urgent care-emergency care doctor as a continuous flow — almost like a river that flows from one end of the [medical care spectrum] to the other,” explains Dr. Usha Sathian,  service chief of urgent and community care for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “At one end is the pediatrician who does well visits and holistic primary care. The emergency room is the other end, with high-acuity care, taking care of things that are very serious. Urgent care falls in between that.”

That perspective can help you make sense of the medical situations pediatric urgent care center are equipped to treat. These include:

  • Fevers, colds and other flu-like symptoms
  • Asthma
  • Foreign objects that need removal (except for blocked airways)
  • Ear infections
  • Sore throats
  • Vomiting or diarrhea (without blood)
  • Sprains, strains and fractures
  • Broken bones where the bone isn’t coming out of the skin
  • Minor burns
  • Cuts that may need stitches
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Mild skin rashes

For more serious emergency situations, it’s best to go to the emergency room. These situations include:

  • Fever of more than 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C) in infants less than two months
  • Ingestion of a poisonous substance or too much medicine
  • Severe burns
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Bluish lips or face
  • Behavioral change after an injury
  • Difficulty keeping down fluids
  • Acute respiratory distress (gasping for air)
  • Gaping cuts with severe bleeding
  • Broken bones where the bone is protruding
  • Psychiatric issues

On the other end of the spectrum, some medical issues of low concern, like a low-grade fever or mild sore throat, can wait until the child’s primary care provider is available.

Your child’s PCP will have their full medical records on hand, and their office is a place you and your child already know and trust. If their office is closed, the PCP may have an on-call doctor who can answer questions and recommend where to go.

Even if you end up taking your child to a pediatric urgent care center, it’s still important that your child has a primary care provider. “We’re not meant to replace a child’s pediatrician,” explains Dr. Gina Murray, medical director for two pediatric urgent care centers at CHOP. “It’s good care, but it’s not meant to replace the care they’d receive from their pediatrician.”

Do your research

Because urgent care is a relatively new addition to the healthcare continuum, there’s wide variety in what kid-friendly urgent care centers offer.

“If you’ve seen one pediatric urgent care, you’ve seen one pediatric urgent care,” notes Dr. Sathian. (She cofounded the Society for Pediatric Urgent Care to help establish best practices and enhance care across the country.)

Some pediatric urgent care center have a radiologist for on-site X-rays and a lab for blood work. Other centers may have less tools at their disposable, so it’s best to know ahead of time what they’ll be able to do for your child.

You’ll also want to know in advance whether the urgent care center accepts your family’s insurance plan, and how they share records back to your child’s PCP or the hospital if your child gets admitted.

Dr. Murray explains that at CHOP, the whole network shares the same medical records system, making it easy to keep records together.

Though pediatric urgent care is not a substitute for a regular PCP, Dr. Murray sees it as a vital resource for families.

“Primary care providers are so busy with well-visits, and kids generally get hurt and sick in the evenings and on weekends,” she explains. “We’re a really good adjunct to that primary care.”

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