Updated: Jun 19, 2020
If you don’t have much experience with urgent care centers, you might question how they work. What you don’t know could shape your opinion of these facilities, resulting in misinformation about the quality of care they provide.
Urgent care centers are fitting if you need care for a minor medical emergency or if you require other medical services like physical examinations, lab work and vaccinations. These centers are convenient and widely accessible. Here are a few things you need to know about them before you go.
1. Check in online if you can
Many urgent care clinics are walk-in centers, meaning you don’t need an appointment to see a healthcare provider. Because you don’t need an appointment, your wait time can vary considerably depending on the number of people ahead of you. It could take 20 minutes to see a healthcare provider, or it could take an hour or longer.
Keep in mind that some urgent care centers do allow appointments. So it doesn’t hurt to call a center ahead of your arrival to see if you can reserve a specific time slot and shorten your wait time.
Even if a center doesn’t allow appointments, you might have the option of online check-in. Go to the center’s website and provide initial information so they can prepare for your arrival. This process reserves your spot in line, which helps you see a healthcare provider sooner.
2. Find the right center for your needs
Don’t wait until you’re sick to start looking for an urgent care center. It’s important to choose a center that accepts your health insurance plan (and is in network if applicable) to reduce your out-of-pocket responsibility. Also, select a facility that specializes in the care that you need. If the urgent care communicates well with your doctor’s office, this is a plus.
For example, some urgent care centers specialize in pediatric care, making these clinics an excellent choice if your child needs care. Other clinics specialize in treating issues related to women’s health.
Be aware of the location of the closest urgent care center to your home. Familiarize yourself with the type of services provided by this clinic, as well as the clinic’s operating hours.
3. Know what to bring with you
Urgent care centers don’t maintain an extensive record of a patient’s medical history like a regular doctor’s office. To expedite treatment and receive the best care possible, bring all necessary medical documentation with you to the clinic. This includes your most recent health insurance information and the names of any prescription medications you’re taking.
A list of your significant medical diagnoses is helpful too. Also have available your (or your child’s) doctor’s name and office information. If you’re bringing a minor who isn’t your child, make sure you have their parental authorization form.
You’ll also need to bring a picture ID. The clinic doesn’t have a relationship with you, so your ID is necessary to verify your identity. You’re also responsible for any payments or copays at the time of the appointment, so make sure you’re prepared for that.
4. Know the best time to go
You can visit an urgent care center at any time during the clinic’s normal operating hours. Be aware that some times may be busier than others. This includes nights, weekends, and holidays when many doctor offices are closed.
The more people ahead of you in line, the longer it’ll take to be seen. If you need urgent care but you can wait it out a bit longer, call your nearest urgent care center and ask about the estimated wait time before leaving the house. You’ll be seen by a healthcare provider quicker if you arrive when the clinic isn’t busy.
5. Realize that you may not see a doctor
Before heading to an urgent care clinic, it’s important to know that the person who treats you might not be a doctor. Many urgent care centers have doctors on staff, but they also have a staff of physician assistants and nurse practitioners who can diagnose and prescribe treatment for various health conditions. Regardless of what type of healthcare provider you see, they will likely offer treatment, and then recommend following up with your regular doctor.
6. Don’t go to urgent care for a life-threatening emergency
Urgent care centers are limited in the type of care they can provide. These clinics are suitable when you need treatment for colds, strep throat, urinary tract infections, burns, bug stings, and allergic reactions. Some urgent care clinics can treat small lacerations and fractures.
For a major emergency, however, go straight to an emergency room. Situations that require a hospital include chest pain, difficulty breathing, unconsciousness, severe headache, severe dizziness, severe vomiting, bleeding that won’t stop, and a broken bone that sticks out of the skin.
Going to an urgent care center in these situations is potentially dangerous because doctors at the clinic won’t have the right equipment to treat your problem, and you’ll have to be sent to the emergency room.
Urgent care centers are convenient and affordable. Make sure you know when to choose them for your medical situation. Understanding what urgent care facilities can and can’t treat can help you decide where to go for medical treatment.
Your regular doctor might be the preferred choice, but when you can’t get an appointment for a minor, acute problem, an urgent care center can usually provide the same level of care. Of course, urgent care centers are not emergency rooms. So if you experience a major medical emergency, call an ambulance and get help as soon as possible.