It doesn’t matter how often your children wash their hands or how much they bundle up in cold weather. At some point, they will probably get sick and may need to see a doctor.
But children don’t always get sick at the most convenient times. If your regular doctor’s office is closed and a situation can’t wait until the next business day, an urgent care center might be the next best thing.
These centers are clinics staffed with doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and nurses. They provide a convenient, fast, and affordable way to get medical treatment.
Here’s what you should know about urgent care before you and your child head out the door.
1. Know what urgent care is, and what it isn’t
Keep in mind that not every stand-alone medical clinic is an urgent care center. Some hospital systems may have separate emergency rooms in locations throughout your city to avoid overcrowding. So if your kid gets sick in the middle of the night and you need an urgent care center, don’t just drive to any facility that’s open. Make sure the place you visit is indeed an urgent care center.
An easy way to distinguish these centers from emergency rooms is to look at the name of the facility. If the word “emergency” is in its name, it’s probably not an urgent care center.
This isn’t to say you can’t take your child to an emergency room. Just know that emergency room costs can differ from urgent care.
Also, if possible, take your child to a pediatric urgent care center. The doctors and nurses at these facilities specialize in diagnosing and treating kids and may be able to provide your child with the highest quality of care.
2. Prepare before an emergency occurs
It’s not a question of “if” your child will get sick after your regular doctor’s office closes, but rather “when.” In this situation, you wouldn’t want to drive around town in the middle of the night searching for an urgent care center.
First off, ask your doctor’s office what they recommend when your child becomes ill after hours. Often, they will have a number you can call for advice and speak with an on-call provider to help decide what type of care your child needs and how urgently they need it.
Be proactive and prepare for late-night needs in advance. Take note of the urgent care centers nearest to you. Next, contact your health insurance company to see which centers are covered under your policy. Using a center that accepts your health insurance can reduce your out-of-pocket expenses. Also, ask your doctor’s office if there is an urgent care center they recommend, or at least one that communicates well with them.
It’s also beneficial to know the operating hours of different urgent care centers. Some centers may operate 24 hours a day, whereas others may shut their doors at 10 or 11 p.m. Gathering this information in advance can alleviate the hassle of searching for an open clinic.
Being prepared also involves organizing your paperwork. You may go into panic mode when your child is sick or injured. And in this state of mind, you may leave vital information at home. Always keep your child’s health insurance information, a list of their medications, and their doctor’s name and office information in your wallet or purse for quick reference.
If a matter isn’t too urgent, go a step further and call a couple of urgent care centers before leaving the house to inquire about wait times and the cost of a visit. This can also prevent surprise costs, especially if your health insurance plan has a large copay for (or doesn’t cover) urgent care, or if you have to meet your annual health insurance deductible before your insurance provider picks up the tab.
3. Don’t underestimate urgent care services
The more you familiarize yourself with urgent care, the better. This knowledge could save you time and money.
If your child needs medical attention and your doctor isn’t available, you might think an emergency room is the best place for care. But many urgent care centers are equipped to handle a variety of medical issues, and these centers provide numerous services.
As a general rule of thumb, urgent care centers treat the same conditions that a doctor treats in their office. These conditions include strep throat, respiratory illnesses, ear infections, minor fractures or sprains, and small lacerations.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t go to urgent care to treat serious or life-threatening medical conditions. So if your child experiences breathing difficulty or significant pain with movement, or becomes suddenly lethargic and confused, call an ambulance or go to an emergency room to avoid wasting any time. If an urgent care center can’t provide treatment, the center will transfer your child to a hospital.
4. Remain as calm as possible
It can be difficult to remain calm when your child isn’t feeling well. But remember, they may feed off of your emotions. If you cry or become upset or frazzled, this can make your child nervous and afraid. Your calmness, however, can soothe and provide reassurance.
5. Get a sitter, if needed
If possible, don’t bring all of your children to the urgent care center. Ask a relative, neighbor, or friend to watch any other children in your home. There’s no way to predict how long it’ll take to treat your sick child. When you leave the other kids with a sitter, you can focus all of your time, energy, and attention on the sick child. Plus, fewer distractions can make it easier to cope with the situation.
6. Shorten your wait time by checking in online
Urgent care centers accept walk-in appointments, and you don’t need to call in advance. Some parents might shy away from these facilities due to concerns over long wait periods. But some urgent care centers allow for online check-ins to reserve a spot. This can shorten your wait time upon arrival and help your child get medical attention faster.
Urgent care centers aren’t emergency rooms, but they are staffed with doctors or other providers who are prepared and ready to handle minor emergencies from infections to sprains. These centers are ideal if your child needs care after normal doctor hours, or if your doctor is booked with appointments and can’t squeeze you in.