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Urgent care centers vs. emergency rooms

| Dec 20, 2017 | Failure to Diagnose

Many in New York City may have difficulty differentiating “urgent” from “emergency.” Both words denote a heightened level of need and severity. Thus, when one hears the terms “emergency room” and “urgent care center,” he or she may believe they represent the same type of facility. Yet they do not. According to Becker’s ASC Review, there are currently 7,100 urgent care centers in the U.S., compared to 5,025 emergency rooms. The most obvious difference between the two is location. Urgent care centers are usually found in freestanding clinics, while ER’s are located in hospitals (leading many to refer to them as “emergency departments”). A bigger distinction, however, is the type of care each offers. 

Urgent care centers can handle non-life threatening cases requiring minimal intervention and diagnostic testing. Cigna Health offers the following list of general conditions and problems as those commonly seen in such locations: 

  • Nagging cold and flu
  • Fever
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Certain types of bone fractures
  • Minor cuts and burns

Emergency departments, on the other hand, must be equipped to handle a wide scope of cases as well as to provide trauma care. As such, they require more staffing resources, easy access to imaging equipment and laboratory testing, and near immediate availability of surgical intervention. ED’s are more closely associated with the term “trauma center,” as that phrase indicates the level of trauma care a facility can offer. If it cannot accommodate a case, the ED staff will stabilize the patient and arrange immediate transfer to another facility. 

Both ED’s and urgent care centers have factors that can contribute to diagnostic errors. Seeing higher acuity cases may prompt ED doctors to rush their decision-making, while the lack of extensive resources at an urgent care center limits the conditions that their providers can definitively offer as diagnoses. 

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