The medical patients of today are savvy consumers. Years ago, people would start at the hospital for every complaint. The staff there would decide what the next step was, from calling in specialists to sending the patient to the hospital’s pharmacy.
But increasingly, patients are able to take healthcare decisions into their own hands. They are looking at their options near work, in their home community, and even in the stores they frequent.
The medical industry has long been shifting into this distributed healthcare model, where individual elements of care are provided across a range of smaller providers. And now people who need healthcare have more options than ever before. These vary widely in terms of price, services available, and when a service is open.
Once upon a time, people would head to their doctor or, depending on severity, call an ambulance and get a ride to the Emergency Room. These days, Urgent Care Clinics and pharmacy chains have doubled these options. Here’s a look at what these four places have to offer and when’s the right time to go to each one.
The Emergency Room
Emergency Rooms are the place to go when your limbs or your life are at risk. These departments are open 24/7 and have a full set of staff on deck at all times. The ER also has expensive diagnostic and lifesaving equipment that you won’t have access to through other options.
Is your problem serious and has to be handled right now? The ER is your best choice. There are now many stand-alone ER units across the country, not only in hospitals – as even emergency treatment has become more distributed. Severe or life-threatening issues include such conditions as:
- signs of stroke or heart attack
- compound fractures
- severed fingers, ears, etc.
- eye or head injuries
- severe chest or abdominal pain
- uncontrolled bleeding
- preterm childbirth or complications during at-home childbirth
Your Primary Healthcare Provider
Your Primary Care Provider (PCP) is the doctor whom you may have seen regularly over many years. These may work out of a hospital or have a private practice. Often, your primary physician is the professional who knows your medical history and condition the best.
However, this isn’t a guarantee. If your regular doctor is out on vacation, another one who isn’t as familiar with your file may step in. And as the Electronic Health Record (EHR) becomes easier to update across all the distributed healthcare professionals, this knowledge can become more accessible.
You typically have to book an appointment to see your usual doctor. These appointments are often available only during standard working hours. You can see your PCP for a variety of reasons including:
- yearly physicals
- getting a referral to other specialists
- discussing prescription refills
- adjusting your medication depending on how you’re reacting to it
- bringing up health concerns
- coming up with a plan for dealing with chronic or complex health conditions
- discussing your options for future treatments or surgeries
The Urgent Care
Urgent Care Clinics were developed to meet a growing need for affordable, non-emergency medical help. Not every injury requires a fully outfitted ER to treat – you could go there, or to your regular doctor, but you’re probably looking at longer wait times and higher bills. Urgent care centers are now well established, with over a thousand such facilities across the country, in a growing and popular model.
While the ER is open 24/7, and your primary physician probably keeps regular hours, urgent care facilities usually have extended working hours, including evenings and weekends. This makes them a good fit for medical situations that you want attended to quickly and conveniently but that aren’t emergencies.
Urgent care centers can help you deal with issues like:
- sprains and sports injuries
- fever or lingering cough
- broken fingers and toes
- minor cuts that need stitches
- persistent vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration
- physical exams to comply with sports or job regulations
- drug and TB testing
- UTI or upper respiratory tract infection treatment
Pharmacies are everywhere around the country, as independents and in well known chains. Many big box stores also have an in-house pharmacy department. These places offer both over-the-counter and prescription medication and other medical supplies.
Along with getting your prescriptions filled here, this is a good place to pick up healthcare basics like adhesive bandages or mild pain relievers. The pharmacists there can also give you clinical advice for managing minor illnesses at home. For instance, you may drop by for:
- seasonal allergies
- pink eye relief
- sore throats
- minor stomach and digestive issues
- quitting smoking
- skin rashes
- toddler teething problems
How do you decide where to go for medical care? If you are seriously ill or injured and need help now, go to the Emergency Room. If only one of these is true, your Primary Healthcare Provider or an Urgent Care Center may be a good fit. Finally, pharmacies round out your options with affordable care for minor health discomforts.
If you still aren’t sure, an Urgent Care Clinic is a good place to try first. These centers offer a middle ground between your PCP and the ER. The trained staff there are available for extended hours and can handle a variety of mild to moderate health issues. If you end up needing more support, they can take care of you until the ambulance arrives.