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Gena Cooper: Save time, and money, by knowing if you should visit urgent care or the emergency room

It’s scary enough being sick or hurt enough to need medical attention — and the uncertainty of where to go can add to an already stressful situation. But how do you know where do you go?

Nearly 82% of hospital emergency department visits could be handled by an urgent care facility. Urgent treatment centers (UTC) are walk-in clinics that are either affiliated with a hospital network or run by private companies. You can go to an urgent treatment center if you can’t get in with your primary doctor or if you need to be seen by a provider after business hours. Unlike emergency departments, the wait time can be shorter and the cost for treatment is much less.

(Photo by Halfpoint; iStock/Getty Images Plus, via UK Healthcare)

Go to urgent care for non-life-threatening conditions such as:

• Fever or flu
• Eye and ear conditions
• Sprains and strains
• Cuts that may require stitches
• Urinary tract infections
• Minor broken bones and fractures, such as toes or fingers

Urgent treatment centers can also provide imaging and laboratory tests if ordered by your primary care provider, as well as flu shots and other routine immunizations and physicals required by schools, sports or camps.

Go to a hospital emergency department for severe injury or illness, which can include:

• Major injury and trauma
• Chest pain
• Severe respiratory distress
• Head injuries
• Stroke
• Seizures
• Broken bones
• Serious burns
• Severe pain

Both urgent care centers and emergency departments accept most major insurance plans, but the copay at urgent care might be much lower. The average cost of treatment for a urinary tract infection at a UTC is $112, versus $655 at an emergency department.

If you need a COVID-19 test, find a local testing site near you. Emergency departments cannot accommodate testing of those with no or mild symptoms.

Gena Cooper, M.D., is medical director of pediatric emergency medicine and University of Kentucky Medical Center

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