When should you visit an urgent care center?

How to decide to go to an urgent care center, the ER, or just make an appointment with your primary care doctor.
Urgent care is a great option for when you have a medical need that is time-sensitive but not life threatening, like testing for strep throat or x-raying a sprained ankle. Photo: ISTOCK

Sometimes when you experience a minor injury or ailment, the wait for a doctor’s appointment can be frustratingly long. And a trip to the emergency room for a UTI could mean a long wait and a large copay. We talked to Dr. Erick Eiting, medical director of the department of emergency medicine, Mount Sinai Downtown, to find out about the increasingly popular step between the doctor’s office and the ER — an urgent care center.

 

What is an urgent care center?

 

Some issues don’t fit neatly into boxes. Urgent care is a great option for people who have a medical need that is time-sensitive but not life threatening. This is usually something that goes beyond the routine visits with a primary care provider, but not really an emergency. 

 

What sorts of things should a patient go to an urgent care center for?

 

Usually some kind of issue that is time-sensitive and requires very little testing. For example, if you wake up with a sore throat and are worried about strep throat, we can test for that. If you are worried that your cold may actually be a pneumonia because now you’re coughing up green phlegm, we can test for that too. And if you are worried that your ankle sprain is actually a broken bone, we can do a quick x-ray and check that out too.

What sorts of things should they not go to urgent care for?

Anything that is life-threatening that would have a high-likelihood of requiring life-saving treatment and/or being admitted to the hospital. If you have chest pain or shortness of breath and think it might be a heart attack, a visit to an urgent care would just delay the treatment you really need, and that could make your heart more likely to stop working properly in the future. An urgent care is the wrong place if you are having a true emergency. While we can always transfer a patient to the emergency room if needed, a stop at urgent care for a true emergency will only delay your care and make it more challenging to treat your condition.

Is urgent care a replacement for a regular primary care doctor?

No. Urgent care is really meant to bridge some of the gaps that exist in health care.  Your primary care doctor may not have a lab or x-ray machine in their office and may not be able to see you the same day. But most medical conditions that can wait a few days, like getting your routine vaccines or making sure your cholesterol is well-controlled, are best managed by your primary care doctor.

Are there specialized urgent care centers for certain patients and/or special conditions?

Urgent care centers usually take most patients, though some there that cannot accommodate young children or elderly patients with complicated medical conditions.  There are also urgent care centers that address specific conditions, such as orthopedics, sports medicine or ophthalmology.

Mount Sinai has a number of urgent care centers, just opened one in Union Square. Are there plans for others?

Mount Sinai is working hard to address all of the needs of the many patients we care for.  This includes expanding our primary care services and making sure your Mount Sinai doctors are able to get you into their offices in a timely manner. Urgent care centers are part of this plan, so expect to see more Mount Sinai Urgent Care Centers in the future.

 
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