Urgent Care or Emergency Department: Which One Is Right for Your Child's Needs?
Jun 12, 2017
Illness and injury seldom strike at convenient times. Croupy coughs and earaches get worse at night, playground falls are common during evenings and weekends and wheezing pays no attention to work schedules or family plans. Not so long ago, parents had two choices for after-hours medical care: wait for the doctor’s office to open or head to the local emergency room. Today’s parent has more choices, including urgent care centers, grocery store clinics and the newest player in town – the stand-alone ER.
Start with Your Regular Doctor
Unless your child is facing a life-threatening problem, always start with a call to your child’s doctor. The medical home is an important place, and the person who cares for your son or daughter on a regular basis can help you choose the best course of action. Perhaps there is something you can do at home and a visit to the office can wait until tomorrow. Maybe an urgent care center is the right fit. It’s also possible your child needs emergency help right away. Your doctor is happy to provide this guidance, even when the office is closed.
The Urgent Care Center
There are many choices, but the best urgent care for kids is the one designed especially for them. Children are not little adults and they deserve special care from providers with pediatric training and expertise. Urgent care centers are great when same-day treatment is needed, but the situation doesn’t rise to the level of an emergency. Here are some examples:
Allergic reactions (rash)
Small broken bones
Vomiting and diarrhea
The Emergency Room
Trips to the emergency department should be reserved for those with significant illness or injury and conditions requiring hospital admission or surgery. If in doubt, your doctor can help you decide. Here are some examples of conditions requiring emergency room care:
Allergic reactions (anaphylactic shock)
Asthma/difficulty breathing/respiratory distress
Fever (especially in infants eight weeks of age or younger)
If your child’s condition appears severe or life-threatening, be sure to call 911.
The Stand-Alone ER
Emergency departments without an attached hospital are the newest option in after-hours care. These provide the same expertise and services as the regular emergency room, but are best suited when hospital admission or surgery is unlikely (although transfer to the hospital is possible). Stand-alone emergency centers might be closer to home and frequently offer shorter wait times than a hospital’s main ER.
A Word about Cost
Emergency departments never close and must stand ready to treat anything that comes through the door. This requires more staff and supplies and treatment options and resources than a doctor’s office or urgent care. This degree of expertise and readiness is comforting for families and can be life-saving for many kids, but it comes with a price. Trips to emergency departments and stand-alone emergency centers cost more than a doctor’s office or urgent care visit, and insurance companies typically pass this higher cost along in the form of bigger co-pays.
At the End of the Day
Despite these options, the medical home is still the best place to start when your child has an illness or injury. Pediatricians take phone calls when the office is closed for a reason – they care about your kids and want to guide your family on the best course of treatment.
Dr. Mike Patrick is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Medical Director of Interactive Media for Nationwide Children's Hospital. Since 2006, he has hosted the award-winning PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents. Dr. Mike also produces a national podcast for healthcare providers—PediaCast CME, which explores general pediatric and faculty development topics and offers free AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ to listeners.
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