Urgent Care vs. the Emergency Room: Which Is Best for Kids?

For parents, the instinct to rush your child to the emergency room (ER) when they are unwell or injured is both a strong and completely understandable reaction. No parent wishes to prolong any pain or discomfort their child is feeling, and the emergency room has become a reflexive go-to for anything from a high fever to broken bones. There are many cases in which the ER is absolutely the appropriate place for your child to receive the care he or she needs, but there is another option you might not have considered: urgent care clinics.

Urgent care clinics are facilities that bridge the gap between the ER and your pediatrician. Many urgent care facilities across the country offer extended, even late night hours in order to accommodate immediate healthcare concerns that happen outside of a 9 to 5 schedule, including on the weekend.

Is it an emergency?

An important thing for parents to remember is that “urgent” and “emergency” are not the same. It’s easy to confuse the two, especially as a parent who only wishes that their child felt better, but there are situations where the ER may be the better option for your family’s needs. Emergency care is always strongly advised in the following situations:

  • Head or eye injury
  • Chest pain/difficulty breathing
  • High fevers with rash
  • Severe burns or deep lacerations
  • Cases of sudden, severe pain and/or swelling
  • Seizures
  • Sudden changes in vision
  • Altered mental status, confusion

Should any of the above symptoms occur, please contact emergency services or visit the ER immediately.

Urgent care vs. the ER

There are notable differences between an urgent care clinic and the emergency room in terms of what healthcare services are offered at each facility. However, a typical urgent care clinic can usually offer testing and treatment for a wide range of health concerns, including:

  • Cold/flu symptoms
  • Conjunctivitis (“pink eye”)
  • All types of infections, including respiratory
  • Asthma
  • Travel medicine
  • Vaccinations
  • Lacerations (non-severe cuts and wounds)
  • Bone fractures
  • Muscle sprains and strains

Maybe your first instinct as a parent wouldn’t be to visit the ER for the cold or the flu, but many parents believe that the ER is their best go-to for broken bones and lacerations. Although treatment for these services is offered at emergency rooms, there are benefits to visiting an urgent care clinic instead.

The benefits of urgent care clinics

There are many situations in which a parent’s knee-jerk reaction is to visit an emergency room, without first considering whether an urgent care clinic is a better option. There are benefits to consider when a visit to the ER isn’t required. Urgent care clinics can typically offer:

  • Same-day appointments
  • Walk-in visits (first come, first serve)
  • X-rays
  • On-site laboratory testing
  • EKGs

Urgent care costs vs. emergency room costs

When your child is sick or in pain, the price of treatment may not be a major concern, which is why in some circumstances, people end up starting a GoFundMe campaign. However, the cost of services provided by urgent care clinics is generally much lower than that of an emergency room. This will depend on your insurance coverage, but the average urgent care can range from $50 – $150, whereas the average ER visit has a median cost of $1,233.

Urgent care environment vs. emergency room environment

Customarily, urgent care clinics provide a more relaxed environment with less crowds than an emergency room. This is especially beneficial for children, who may already be worked up or in varying levels of pain or discomfort. They can benefit from a quieter, relaxed atmosphere where they can calm down and get settled more easily before seeing a physician.

Urgent care wait time vs. emergency room wait time

Additionally, wait times can be significantly shorter because urgent care clinics are typically less crowded. This means that your child will be able to visit with a provider sooner and receive the treatment and care needed so you can return home faster. For example, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) notes that the average wait time for an ER visit is about an hour, whereas the Urgent Care Association of America found that 65% of urgent care patients wait less than 20 minutes to see a provider.

For parents, any situation in which your child is unwell or injured can be stressful. The last thing you need on your plate is a trip to the ER that brings long wait times, a hectic, crowded waiting room and high fees for testing and treatment. When appropriate, a visit to an urgent care clinic can cut down on the strain you and your child feel when seeking care.

A great way for parents to be prepared ahead of future illness and injury is to research your local urgent care facilities. By doing so, you’ll rest easy knowing that you have all of the information you need for the next fever or broken bone your child experiences.

Pacific Family Practice

Pacific Family Practice (PFP) provides exceptional primary and urgent care for all patients from San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Marin County and the entire SF Bay Area. We offer flexible hours, immediate appointments, and same-day walk-ins at our San Francisco clinic. PFP’s board-certified family doctors provide a full range of medical care, including pediatrics, women’s health, internal medicine, and urgent care services. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, schedule a doctor’s appointment today!