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How to Know Whether to Go to Your Doctor, or Visit Urgent Care

How to Know Whether to Go to Your Doctor, or Visit Urgent Care

Relying too much on urgent care for treatment might mean you miss bigger health issues

By Sumathi Reddy, WSJ

Nov. 14, 2023 5:30 am ET

The ubiquity of walk-in and urgent-care clinics has changed the way many of us seek treatment for what we think are minor ailments.

You’ve got a sore throat and want to get tested for strep. Do you try to make an appointment with your primary care doctor, or go to the nearby walk-in clinic?

The ubiquity of walk-in and urgent-care clinics has changed the way many of us seek treatment for what we think are minor ailments such as the flu, pinkeye or a pulled muscle. Instead of trying to make an appointment with our primary care doctor, who might not be able to see you the same day, we often just go to the walk-in clinic.

In many cases, that’s perfectly fine—and there are some instances where urgent care centers are better-equipped, doctors say. But relying too much on urgent care for treatment might mean you miss bigger health issues or neglect important preventive care like vaccinations and health screenings.

“The urgent care center is going to focus on the problem at hand and move on, but their primary care is going to try to think more comprehensively,” says Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School who has researched urgent care clinics.

The number of urgent care centers has grown by about 14% every year since 2016, says Lou Ellen Horwitz, CEO of the Urgent Care Association, a trade group. Mehrotra’s research found that the number of urgent care center visits per person more than doubled between 2008 and 2015.

What urgent care is good for

Urgent care is a great place to go to address immediate medical concerns when you can’t get an appointment with your doctor or it’s a weekend or evening and the office is closed. (If it’s potentially life-threatening, though, you should go to the ER.)

Urgent care centers can be better suited to treat certain injuries than your doctor’s office. Sprains, strains, cuts and burns are all things that urgent care centers are good at treating, says Dr. Rupal Bhingradia, a family physician who works at an urgent care clinic in New York.

Many urgent care centers have equipment that allows them to do more than your average primary care practice.

“They’ll often have X-ray equipment, CT scans, ability to do sutures, IV and so forth,” says Mehrotra. “In general most primary care practices cannot provide those kinds of services.”

If you go to urgent care for a flare-up of a chronic condition, such as asthma or migraines, make sure to tell your primary care doctor afterward so that they can keep track of your episodes and potentially adjust your treatment plan.

“There’s a lot of chronic disease where the number of episodes actually matters,” says Dr. Ari Friedman, an emergency medicine physician and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who works in a trauma center and researches urgent care.

For example, after a certain number of migraines, you reach a point where you meet the criteria for a preventive medication. And in children with recurrent ear infections, there’s a threshold for when to put in ear tubes.

There are certain times where you should skip urgent care and head straight to the emergency department, says Friedman. This includes if you have any symptoms that might be a heart attack or stroke, such as chest pain or face numbness. If you’re struggling to breathe or have severe abdominal pain, it makes more sense to head to the ER rather than wasting time at an urgent care clinic that may end up sending you there, he says.

In addition, if you have a child under 5, Mehrotra suggests going to a pediatric urgent care center if you can, even though adult ones will often see children.

When to see your primary care doctor

The number one challenge with urgent care centers is that they generally don’t have access to your electronic health record, which details your medical history and other important medical information, says Mehrotra.

An urgent care doctor isn’t tracking your health over the long term or looking for patterns that may require new treatments. So especially if you have a complicated health history or chronic illnesses, relying too much on urgent care for treatment may mean you miss bigger problems.

A primary care doctor may also look for other conditions than the one you’ve come in for—screening for, say, anxiety even if you have come in complaining of stomach pain. Or they’ll also offer you a chance to get a flu shot if you’ve come in for a sprain.

Cost can also be a factor when deciding whether to go to your doctor’s office or urgent center, says Mehrotra. It typically will cost more to go to an urgent care clinic than your primary care doctor’s office because they typically have more overhead expenses with longer hours and extra equipment. But it will be less than going to the emergency room.

You shouldn’t use an urgent care clinic as a replacement for a family physician or primary care doctor, says Bhingradia. Primary care doctors will manage your overall care rather than simply treating a one-off complaint, and should be your first point of contact for routine healthcare needs such as vaccinations, screenings and treatment of chronic conditions, she says.

In addition, you should wait to see your doctor rather than go to urgent care for things like non-urgent medication refills or adjustments, says Friedman, because they know your medical history.

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