Nowadays, more and more Americans are turning to urgent care centers — over emergency rooms and primary care offices — to quickly and affordably treat minor injuries and illnesses.
“An urgent care center’s chief objective is to address the demand for prompt and convenient care,” says Dr. Franz Ritucci, president of the American Board of Urgent Care Medicine. “They were designed to manage unplanned visits for low-acuity conditions.”
Before you go to a clinic, it’s always essential to make sure you’re not experiencing a medical emergency (chest pain, uncontrolled bleeding, major trauma, or other symptoms).
With their surge in popularity, urgent care providers have established a few common areas where urgent care centers really excel. When in doubt, you can count on urgent care to treat straightforward injuries, upper respiratory conditions and headaches.
When you sprain your ankle running to catch a bus, or trip and twist your arm, there’s usually no need to head to the emergency department. Urgent care centers can treat simple injuries, like ankle sprains, minor burns and even potential fractures.
“If you’re playing sports and you think, ‘My ankle is swollen. I may have a fracture,’ that’s fine to go to an urgent care center,” Ritucci says.
Most urgent care centers have on-site X-Ray machines to determine whether or not you have a fracture. Many can also give you a cast or splint, if need be.
People also commonly visit urgent care centers to patch up cuts or gashes that may require stitches. Ritucci says urgent care can address “simple lacerations,” like box-cutter cuts, or kitchen gashes you might get from dicing up veggies.
If the injury seems extreme, it probably is. Ritucci notes some injuries are too advanced to be treated in urgent care centers.
“If you find that you have a laceration on the hand, and you’re unable to move the finger at all, then it’s the emergency department,” he says. “But if you’re able to flex and extend your finger, and you can feel your finger, then by all means, urgent care is fine.”
Upper respiratory infections
Urgent care centers frequently diagnose and treat bronchitis, colds, the flu and other upper respiratory infections.
They have a variety of speedy tests for different conditions on-hand. As we enter flu season, if you come down with a case of the sniffles, you can easily rule out COVID-19 and other issues at an urgent care clinic.
“[People may like] how quickly COVID testing can be done in the urgent care facility,” Ritucci says. “If they require a chest X-ray because of their severity of symptoms, that can be done too. Depending on their oxygen level, we may have to send them to the hospital, but if they’re ambulatory and stable, they’ll go home.”
If you feel sideswiped by a headache and it doesn’t respond to your usual treatment, try urgent care. Researchers have found that many people with chronic migraine often head to clinics for some quick relief. This is the case even if a primary care physician typically manages their condition.
Another disclaimer: Before heading to an urgent care facility with headache pain, be sure that what you’re experiencing shouldn’t be assessed by emergency physicians.
“On a scale of one to 10, if your headache is a nine or a 10, then you need to be evaluated in the emergency department,” Ritucci says. “That might require a CT scan, and urgent care facilities are not designed for that.”