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Walk-In Clinic vs. ER: Choosing the Right Place to Get Care

Walk-In Clinic vs. ER: Choosing the Right Place to Get Care

Walk-In Clinic vs. ER: Choosing the Right Place to Get Care

Sometimes, figuring out where to go for medical care can be tricky. Scheduling an appointment with your family medicine or primary care doctor isn’t always convenient, especially when you need to see a medical provider quickly. How can you tell if your symptoms are suited to a walk-in clinic (also known as an urgent care clinic) or warrant a visit to the emergency room (ER), or emergency department? The choice isn’t always clear, but there are ways to make it easier — and advantages to choosing a walk-in clinic, when appropriate.

The Challenges of Choosing Between a Walk-In Clinic and the ER

Medical conditions often share similar symptoms. As a result, it can be difficult recognizing if a symptom is a life-threatening condition or something less serious. That, in turn, complicates the decision of where to seek care.

“Many conditions that aren’t life-threatening can mimic life-threatening conditions,” said Kim White, Director of Emergency Services at Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County. “For example, acid reflux can cause chest pain, which can lead people to worry they may be having a heart attack.”

Overreliance on online information can cause confusion about where to go for care, White said. Internet research from an unreliable source can cause people to believe a minor condition is, in fact, serious, resulting in an unnecessary ER visit.

When to Go to the ER

If an injury or symptom seems life-threatening, call 911 or go to the nearest ER right away. When in doubt, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“Symptoms that warrant an ER visit include chest pain or pressure, as they can indicate a heart attack,” White said. “Uncontrolled bleeding is also a reason to visit the ER, where providers have quick access to lab tests, blood products, and procedures. Seizures should be treated in the ER if the patient hasn’t had them before, or if medications to treat a seizure aren’t effective.”

Additional symptoms and conditions for which you should visit the ER include:

  • Choking
  • Deep laceration
  • Electric shock
  • Fainting
  • Head, neck, or spine injury
  • High fever that doesn’t get better after taking medicine
  • Possible broken bone
  • Possible poisoning or overdose
  • Severe allergic reaction
  • Severe burn
  • Severe pain, especially in the stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stroke symptoms, such as sudden confusion, vision changes, or weakness on one side of the body
  • Vomiting or diarrhea that won’t stop

When to Visit a Walk-In Clinic

Not every illness or injury needs emergent care. When a symptom or condition isn’t an emergency, but you want to see a medical provider quickly, a walk-in clinic may be a great option. Providers at these clinics can care for a variety of common, non-life-threatening injuries and illnesses, including:

  • Common colds
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Earaches
  • Flu
  • Low-grade fevers
  • Minor burns
  • Minor cuts that may require stitches
  • Minor rashes
  • Nausea
  • Sinus infections
  • Sore throats
  • Sprains and strains
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Vomiting

“If you’ve had symptoms for a few days, you should go to a walk-in clinic because the symptoms haven’t required emergent care,” White said. “For example, patients sometimes come to the ER with sinus symptoms and a cough they’ve had for four days. The symptoms aren’t getting worse, but they also aren’t getting better. That’s when it would be appropriate to go to a walk-in clinic.”

Advantages of Going to a Walk-In Clinic

Seeking care at a walk-in clinic can be more convenient and cost-effective than going to the ER. Walk-in clinic wait times are often shorter, and care is typically less expensive. If you’re worried it’ll be difficult to get lab tests or basic imaging exams if you go to a walk-in clinic, know that most clinics have access to or can refer patients for both.

Another advantage of going to a walk-in clinic is helping to keep the ER clear for those who truly need it.

“Going to the ER for conditions that don’t truly warrant emergent care can affect everyone,” White said. “It can be frustrating for patients whose symptoms aren’t emergent when they have to wait for a long time because the ER staff have to treat the sickest patients first. In addition, unwarranted ER visits bog down the department because beds fill with patients who could receive care at a walk-in clinic.”

Unless you have a serious symptom, save yourself time and money — and save the ER for true emergencies — by getting the quick, high-quality care you need at a walk-in clinic.

Need urgent medical care for a minor illness or injury? Find out how the Sweetwater Walk-In Clinic can help.