Sometimes, when you need medical attention for an injury or illness, it can be tough to choose between primary care and urgent care. Most often it’s a matter of timing; you may not have the time to make a call, leave a message, get a callback, be put on hold, and finally schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. There are times when you can’t wait weeks or months for a scheduled appointment—you may need to see a doctor now. That’s where urgent care clinics can help.
If you are sure that you don’t need to go to a hospital emergency room and you’re simply looking for a faster and more affordable way to seek medical help, an urgent care clinic can be a great option. Knowing the differences between primary care and urgent care can help you choose the best option for you.
Why Are Many People Choosing Urgent Care Clinics Over Primary Care Doctors?
Visiting your primary care physician (PCP) is not what it traditionally used to be. According to healthcare industry experts, the time-tested patient/physician relationship that was once the bedrock of our healthcare system is undergoing a change. The line between urgent care and primary care is blurring.
As part of the standard primary care treatment model, patients typically select their PCP through their medical insurance provider’s network. You need to consider whether the doctor is accepting new patients, and whether they’re conveniently located near you. Patients generally like to visit a primary doctor only when they have an injury or illness that demands professional attention.
Urgent care, on the other hand, has traditionally served as the intermediate service provider between the emergency room and primary care. People most often walk into an urgent care clinic for non-emergency conditions, such as sprains, strains, colds and coughs. They may also visit an urgent care clinic for basic medical tests when they can’t access their primary care physician on a weekend or during off-hours.
However, changing demographic trends and a gradual shift in people’s aspirations, cultural value systems and technology have led to a decreased preference for the traditional primary care model. A report published by the Healthcare Cost Institute in 2019 found that primary care visits across the country declined by as much as 18% from 2012 to 2016. Researchers used patient surveys to identify three major reasons for this decline:
- It takes considerable time to get an appointment with a PCP
- The waiting time at a PCP’s office is unbearably high
- Walk-in appointments at a PCP are almost never possible
On the other hand, the trend is dramatically shifting in favor of urgent care clinics. According to the figures released by the Urgent Care Association, from 2017 to 2018, the number of urgent care clinics grew by 8%. Nearly 90 million Americans visit urgent care centers annually, accounting for nearly 30% of all primary care visits nationwide, and nearly 15% of all outpatient doctor visits.
The traditional mindset that separated primary care entities from urgent care clinics appears to be on the decline. In many cases, urgent care seems to be crossing over into what was traditionally a very exclusive primary care space. Urgent care has been increasingly recognized for its wider scope of services, in addition to its ease of access, convenience and relative cost-effectiveness that sets it apart.
Urgent care clinics are often in a position to provide lab work, x-rays, prescriptions and medical supplies all in one visit. The healthcare insurance system also appears to be contributing to this paradigm shift away from PCPs and towards urgent care. Some patients may have less comprehensive benefits and higher premiums. Some doctors may find it necessary to increase their patient volume to meet their financial goals. Health insurers may interfere with the ideal course of treatment because they may not offer coverage for certain procedures.
All of this results in inordinately long wait times for patients, and reduced personal interaction with a doctor during visits. A Kaiser Foundation poll showed that 45% of people aged 18–29 don’t have a PCP. According to the poll data, 8 out of 10 people say they have visited a PCP in the past 6 months for care, but they identified urgent care as their preferred choice.
Urgent Care Services
Many people who need urgent care for conditions like nausea, upper respiratory infections, back pain, and headache end up in the emergency room because they think that’s the only option available for same-day treatment. Emergency rooms serve a critical function, but they are not generally the best place to receive this type of routine care; it’s better to see your primary care physician. If that’s not possible, urgent care centers like UrgentMED offer a better choice than the ER in many situations.
You can visit urgent care for non-life-threatening injuries and illnesses that are not severe enough to warrant a visit to the ER. Urgent care clinics are often open during the late evenings and on weekends. It’s easy to be seen by a medical professional at these clinics without waiting days or weeks for an appointment; most urgent care center accepts walk-ins.
This option is significantly less expensive as well. Many urgent care centers offer highly affordable “self-pay” options for people who have no health insurance. Some accept insurance, but your co-pay may vary.
It’s important to note that urgent care doesn’t replace your primary care provider. These clinics provide comprehensive medical treatment and even diagnostic testing services for a plethora of injuries and conditions, but they can’t replace the relationship you’ve built with your PCP or family doctor. Instead, think of these facilities as “convenient care” services when:
- You need care for an acute but non-life-threatening emergency
- You can’t make a timely appointment with your PCP
- Your PCP is unavailable
- You don’t have established care with a PCP
An urgent care center essentially fills in the gaps if you don’t have a primary care physician or you need care after normal office hours.
Primary Care Doctor Services
Preventive care is one of the key areas of focus for most primary care doctors. This this provided through regular checkups and immunizations, but is also available for patients when they get sick, need guidance and support in managing a chronic condition, or need treatment for occasional acute illnesses.
Most primary care practices serve all members of the family, from toddlers to the elderly. There can be significant benefits to having one doctor for the entire family, especially as parents or couples face health challenges and work to stay healthy together.
Since your PCP sees you regularly for checkups and has gotten to know you, they can be of immense help in supporting your chronic and long-term health concerns, including mental health, stress management, and nutrition. Your PCP is in charge of your vaccinations, prescription refills, standard exams, and non-urgent medical appointments.
On the downside, if you have an emergency situation—for instance, if you sustained injuries in a car crash or are experiencing a debilitating migraine—your PCPC generally can’t help. The most they can do in these situations is to coordinate with the emergency room on your behalf.
Life Threatening Conditions vs. Non-Life Threatening Conditions
As the name implies, a life-threatening injury or illness is said to occur when the likelihood of death is present unless the patient receives medical treatment immediately. Examples include heart attack, stroke, brain aneurysm, severe head injury or trauma, severe asthma attack, diabetic emergency, severe burns, mental health emergency, and compound fractures. These are the conditions where you must head to an emergency room.
A non-life-threatening condition, on the other hand, is said to occur when the injury or illness doesn’t put your life in danger. These conditions usually don’t have a long-term impact on your life when treated properly. They are resolved within one doctor visit and rarely require follow-up care. Examples include mild allergic reactions, sprains, ear infections, urinary tract infections, abscesses, ingrown toenails, wart removal, and minor bone fractures.
When Should You Go to the Emergency Room?
The ER can create financial stress for many people, considering a single visit could potentially set you back thousands of dollars. But in life-threatening situations, you simply have no other option. There are some conditions that only ER professionals are equipped to handle, such as:
- Severe head trauma (from bullet wounds, motor vehicle accidents, etc.)
- Heavy or excessive bleeding
- Cardiac failure or disease
- Respiratory failure or disease
- Severe burns
- Snake bites
- Debilitating pains
Determining whether or not you need to go to the ER will depend on the severity of your condition.
When Should You Choose Urgent Care Services?
A well-equipped urgent care clinic provides many similar kinds of treatments you would receive at your local hospital. They also provide diagnostic testing and screening services like EKG, X-ray, STD testing, COVID testing, drug screening, and testing for flu, mono, and strep throat. All of these treatments and services are cheaper than what you would be charged at a hospital, with the added bonus of a shorter wait time.
Some of the most common conditions that can be treated at an urgent care center include:
- Mild fever
- Minor aches, pains, and fractures
- Small cuts requiring stitches
- Rashes or skin conditions
- Animal bites and stings
- Allergic reactions
- Common illnesses such as strep throat, flu, pink eye, sinus infections and ear infections
Note that all of the conditions listed above are non-life-threatening. While you may want to see a doctor to get treated the very same day, your health and welfare are not at risk if you wait.
Due to increasing healthcare costs, more and more people are choosing to save money by visiting urgent care services instead of the ER. Urgent care centers accept walk-ins, though you still may want to set up an appointment before dropping by. Call your nearest UrgentMED clinic to see whether it would be beneficial to schedule a same-day appointment. Dedicated urgent care clinics like UrgentMED can also collaborate with your primary care provider by sharing information about your visit.
Treatments & Services Available at Your Local Urgent Care Center
Urgent care facilities can handle nearly all the same conditions your primary doctor does:
When you’re not feeling well due to a common illness like bronchitis, eye irritations, ear aches and infections, sinus infections, kidney stones, rashes & hives, stomach flu, diarrhea and vomiting, wound repair, UTIs, poison ivy, mono, and pediatric care.
When you have minor injuries, including allergies, minor burns, minor cuts and lacerations, scrapes or bruises, strains or sprains, pain or ache that you’ve had for several weeks.
When you need stitches or basic shots, such as a flu shot
When you need tests performed, such as strep tests, STD tests, lab tests, or X-rays
When you need to get your prescriptions renewed
When you need COVID-19 testing. Many urgent care clinics are now offering testing for COVID-19. UrgentMED offers:
- Rapid PCR Test (results are usually available in one hour)
- Antigen Test (results are available in 15–30 minutes)
- PCR Test (same-day results are available if the test is administered before 11am; otherwise it takes 24-36 hours)
- Traditional Antibody Test (results take 1-5 days)
- Rapid Antibody Detection Test (results are available within 10 minutes with just one drop of blood)
COVID-19 testing at UrgentMED is available to those who are asymptomatic. You don’t need to bring a doctor’s note or have any pre-existing conditions.
Can I Use Insurance at an Urgent Care Clinic?
As per the Affordable Care Act (ACA), emergency care falls under the essential health benefits for people with long-term health insurance. Unfortunately, not all insurance companies consider urgent care visits and services as emergency care.
So can you use your insurance at urgent care? It ultimately depends on the clinic. Most accept insurance, but you may still be required to pay a co-pay. Other clinics don’t accept insurance at all. It’s best to call ahead and ask before you visit if possible.
Also keep in mind that insurance companies have specific provider networks, which means you may find that some urgent care clinics are “in-network” and others are not. If you want to be sure you can get the coverage you need, visit an urgent care center that’s within your health plan’s network. UrgentMED accepts Medicare, Medicaid and a large variety of health plans.
In-Network vs. Out-of-Network Insurance
A health insurance network is a group of interdisciplinary doctors and medical care providers that have a contract to provide healthcare to members of that network.
When you see a provider who is “in-network,” you’re seeing a professional who participates in one of your insurance company’s provider networks. Some health plans only cover in-network care, while others provide both in-network and out-of-network coverage. Even if your insurer provides out-of-network coverage, seeing an in-network provider is often cheaper.
“Out-of-network” means that the medical care provider doesn’t have a contract with your insurance company. This can sometimes result in higher rates. If you don’t want to pay out of your own pocket, it’s highly recommended to look for an urgent care clinic near you that is in-network with your health plan.
But what if you don’t have any insurance? Most urgent care centers offer a “self-pay” option, allowing you to make the payment with cash or a debit/credit card. Many clinics also offer affordable payment plans.
Need to See a Doctor Right Away? Walk in to Your Nearest UrgentMED Clinic for High-Quality Care
UrgentMED provides diagnostic testing and medical treatment for non-life-threatening injuries and diseases in a timely manner. Our welcoming team of doctors, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, physical therapists, physician assistants and pharmacists will be happy to see you for a same-day or next-day appointment. You won’t even need to be in the waiting room for more than a few minutes!
As an urgent care clinic, we cannot replace your primary doctor. However, we can definitely substitute emergency room services when it comes to medical conditions that don’t pose a risk to your life. Providing immediate medical attention at extremely reduced rates, UrgentMED clinics offer personalized, efficient and fast care.
UrgentMED has locations around Los Angeles and all across Southern California, including Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Brentwood, Burbank, Calabasas, Culver City, Eagle Rock, Fairfax, Glendale, Huntington Park, Lake Forest, Lawndale, Long Beach, Mar Vista, Moorpark, Pasadena, Rancho Palos, Torrance, Tustin City, Orange, Encino, Rancho Santa Margarita, Rolling Hills, Carlsbad, Pico Rivera, Thousand Oaks, West Hills, Venice, Whittier, and several more.
We’re open every day and for extended hours, so you can drop by after work or on the weekends. Visit your nearest UrgentMED location or contact us online for convenient and affordable care.