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Urgent Care vs. the Emergency Department:

Which do you choose this summer in the event of a medical emergency?

Posted by Tae Keun Park, MD, Medical Director of Emergency Services at Holy Name Medical Center on July 2, 2019

Tae Keun Park, MD, Medical Director of Emergency Services at Holy Name Medical Center

You wake up in the middle of the night with chest pain. Your foot slides in a flip flop, and you twist your ankle. Your son's face starts to swell up after he is stung by a bee.

Many of us will face these situations, but what we do next and where we go to be evaluated can make all the difference.

"There are so many options," says Tae Keun Park, MD, Medical Director of Emergency Services at Holy Name Medical Center. "Do you go to a walk-in clinic, call 9-1-1, or jump in the car and head to your local hospital?

"Each type of care facility -- whether it be an urgent care center, pharmacy walk-in clinic, or an emergency department -- has a great variety of what types of illnesses and medical conditions can be managed. In general, emergency departments have diagnostic testing, treatment options, and access to specialty consultants that the others do not."

The following medical scenarios, says Dr. Park, require the type of specialized rapid care that is only available within a hospital emergency department (ED):

Chest Pain and Difficulty Breathing

"If you are experiencing chest pain or are having difficulty breathing, you need to get to an emergency department. You might think it's nothing but indigestion, but it could be a life-threatening heart attack."

Don't diagnose yourself, cautions Dr. Park: "Time is of the essence. You want the right equipment and trained physicians to evaluate these issues. Urgent care centers will not have some of the resources you need to be properly evaluated."

Stroke Symptoms

"If you experience weakness or numbness on one side, slurred speech, blurry vision, or a change in your mental status, call 9-1-1 to get to an ED as you may be suffering from a stroke," says Dr. Park.

More than 140,000 people die each year from stroke in the United States. A clot-busting medication called tPa – only available in hospital EDs – may be life-saving or reduce the severity of an ischemic stroke, the most common type, if it is given within three hours of the onset of symptoms.

"At Holy Name and other American Stroke Association-designated primary stroke centers, we have specially trained staff and protocols in place to handle this life-threatening condition without delay," says Dr. Park. "Our Gold Status is the highest accreditation that can be achieved, resulting in better patient outcomes."

Head Injury

After a head injury, you could suffer from anything as mild as a bruise or a headache, or you may develop bleeding around your brain that can be life-threatening if not promptly diagnosed.

"Head injuries may be common, but the variety of diagnoses can be very complicated, which is why we recommend patients with head trauma go to an ED for evaluation," recommends Dr. Park.

Broken Bones/Deep Cuts

For this same reason, Dr. Park also recommends going to an ED if you have a possible broken bone or severe cut. "You may need stitches or even surgery if the cut is deep enough," says Dr. Park. The longer you wait to repair a wound, the more likely it could become infected. Not all injuries or broken bones will need surgery, but timeliness with evaluation is key to better outcomes.

Severe Burns and Sunburn

Burns should be evaluated quickly as well, says Dr. Park: "Burns that are on the face, ears, hands, feet, or genitals; those that blister quickly or are whitish or grey; burns that are bigger than the palm of your hand; or potentially infected, with redness, swelling, drainage, or a bad odor, should be assessed at an emergency department."

Safe Summer

Should you need emergency medical care, Holy Name's Emergency Care Center is here for you. Dr. Park offers some advice for a safe summer:

"One of the biggest safety concerns is swimming accidents. Never jump head first into a pool, river, pond, or lake unless diving is permitted. Small children should never be left unsupervised near water. It can take less than 25 seconds for a young child to drown silently." Drownings are not what you see commonly in the media with someone thrashing about in the water.

Additionally, Dr. Park recommends:

  • Wear sunscreen daily with a minimum SPF of 30. Try to stay in shade and minimize direct exposure to the sun, even on an overcast day.
  • Never handle fireworks without adult supervision, and don't combine fires/fireworks with alcohol consumption.
  • Wear appropriate protective gear, especially a helmet while biking and roller skating.
  • Water activities and alcohol consumption can be a dangerous combination.
  • Take precautions on trampolines and limit one person at a time. Trampolines are responsible for a growing number of bone fractures and other injuries.
  • Check for ticks all over the body and hair after spending time outdoors to prevent Lyme disease and other tickborne illnesses.

"If you're concerned about a reaction to a bug bite or are having a hard time removing a tick, come to our ED for evaluation and removal," says Dr. Park.

Holy Name's Emergency Care Center

Each year, approximately 56,000 patients are treated in Holy Name Medical Center's Emergency Care Center by board-certified emergency medicine physicians, physician assistants, advanced practice nurses, and registered nurses with certification in emergency nursing. For more information, please visit our website: https://www.holyname.org/EmergencyCare

If your emergency doesn't need a hospital visit and you can't get to an urgent care center, consider connecting with a Holy Name Medical Partner primary care practitioner: https://www.HolyNameMedicalPartners.org