Urgent care centers are ideal if you need care for a minor medical issue or if you require other medical services like lab work and vaccinations. These centers are convenient and widely accessible. Sometimes they may be called immediate care centers.
They can provide an alternate option for people who may not have a primary care doctor or who need care outside of a doctor’s business hours, according to
However, urgent care centers are different from emergency care centers. They do not treat life threatening conditions. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or your local emergency services, or go to the nearest emergency room.
Here are a few things you need to know about urgent care centers before you go.
Many urgent care clinics are walk-in centers, meaning you don’t need an appointment to see a healthcare professional. Because you don’t need an appointment, your wait time may vary considerably depending on the number of people ahead of you. It could take 20 minutes to see a healthcare professional, 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 to 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 to see if online check-in is available. If so, you can go ahead and provide initial information so they can prepare for your arrival.
This process reserves your spot in line, which helps you see a healthcare professional sooner. Think of it like putting your name down on a waitlist at a restaurant.
It’s not a set appointment slot, but it means the wait time can start before you even get to the clinic. That way, you’ll likely spend less time sitting in the lobby.
If you have health insurance, it’s important to choose a center that accepts your insurance plan (and is in network if applicable) to reduce your out-of-pocket costs.
Also, select a facility that specializes in the care that you need. If the urgent care communicates well with your doctor’s office, this can be a plus.
For example, some urgent care centers specialize in pediatric care, making these clinics a good fit if your child needs care. Other clinics specialize in treating issues related to women’s health or orthopedics.
It can be helpful to know where the closest urgent care center to your home is located. Familiarize yourself with the type of services provided by this clinic, as well as the clinic’s operating hours.
Urgent care centers do not maintain an extensive record of a patient’s medical history like a regular doctor’s office does. To expedite treatment and receive the best care possible, bring all necessary medical documentation with you to the clinic.
This can include your most recent health insurance information and the names of any prescription medications you’re taking. A list of your significant medical diagnoses and vaccination history can be helpful.
Also, if you have a primary care physician (or a pediatrician your child sees), be sure to have the doctor’s name and office information available. If you’re bringing a minor who is not your child, be sure you have their parental authorization form.
You’ll also need to bring a picture ID. The clinic does not 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.
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 doctors’ offices are closed.
The more people waiting ahead of you, the longer it may take to be seen. If you need urgent care but can wait a bit longer, call your nearest urgent care center and ask about the estimated wait time before leaving home. You’ll be seen by a healthcare professional quicker if you arrive when the clinic isn’t busy.
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 the type of healthcare professional you see, they will likely offer treatment and then recommend following up with your regular doctor if you have one.
Urgent care centers are limited in the type of care they can provide. These clinics are suitable when you need treatment for non-life-threatening conditions, which can include:
- cold or flu
- strep throat
- urinary tract infection (UTI)
- bug stings
- non-life-threatening allergic reactions
- small lacerations
- simple broken bones and fractures (at some centers)
- mild asthma attacks
However, for a major emergency, go straight to an emergency room. Situations that require a hospital can include:
- chest pain or shortness of breath
- severe headache
- severe dizziness or severe vomiting
- difficulty breathing
- bleeding that will not stop
- complicated breaks and fractures, such as a broken bone sticking out of the skin
- stroke symptoms, such as numbness and weakness, slurred speech, drooping face, or loss of balance or vision
- severe allergic reaction, such as swelling of the lips or trouble swallowing or breathing
- multiple injuries
- vaginal bleeding or abdominal pain while pregnant
Going to an urgent care center in these situations can potentially be dangerous and waste valuable time because doctors at the clinic likely will not have the right equipment to treat your problem, and you’ll have to be sent to the emergency room.
Urgent care centers are medical facilities where you can receive treatment for non-life-threatening conditions, such as illness or minor injuries. You can typically visit these facilities without needing an appointment, but making an appointment or checking in before you arrive may help reduce your wait time.
Understanding what urgent care facilities can and cannot treat can help you decide where to go for medical treatment.
A doctor or other healthcare professional you’ve seen before is always preferred — especially if it’s a chronic condition that can wait.
But when you cannot get an appointment quick enough for a minor, acute problem, an urgent care center can usually provide the same level of care.
However, urgent care centers are not emergency rooms. So if you experience a major medical emergency, call an ambulance to get help as soon as possible.