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ER or urgent care

Emergency Room vs. Urgent Care Center: A Pediatrician’s Perspective

Kids can get sick any time of the day or night. Your pediatrician’s office isn’t open 24/7, so knowing what requires emergency care is important. And if your child does need emergency services outside of office hours, you have an important decision to make – go straight to the ER or to an urgent care center? Let’s compare the options.

What is urgent care?

Urgent care centers have become increasingly more popular over the past decade. You should treat an urgent care center exactly the same as your pediatrician’s office. It is a great option if your child is sick with something you would typically see your pediatrician for. Also, generally, non life threatening injuries and illnesses that occur after hours can be treated at an urgent care center. They are convenient for illnesses that shouldn’t be left until the next day.

You can find an urgent care center on practically every corner. But are they safe? Can we, as parents, trust that our children are getting adequate medical attention?

The answer is a simple YES!

These facilities can be an excellent resource for parents, especially when your child needs medical attention after your pediatrician’s office closes for the day or weekend.

What is the difference in going to the ER?

Generally, if your child experiences a life threatening illness or injury, you should immediately take him to an emergency room. In a true emergency situation, time is extremely crucial! Equipment and adequate facilities are also important. Urgent care facilities are not usually equipped to do extensive workups, including labs and imaging. If your child requires additional tests, an ER may be a better fit than urgent care.

In some situations, it can actually be more advantageous to take your child to an urgent care center rather than to an emergency room. In the ER, the highest risk patients receive treatment first. So if you’re only there for ear pain and high fever, you may experience a long wait time. This long wait can increase your child’s chance of being exposed to other illnesses while at the ER. In the case of ear pain and high fever, a facility designed to take care of lower risk conditions is a better fit.

If your child has a preexisting medical condition or you feel there is a medical concern that could not be addressed by a primary care physician, it is best to go directly to the emergency room.

ER or Urgent Care?

Below I am going to provide a list of common medical concerns that are appropriate for each facility, but remember, these are just guidelines. I have and will continue to stress to our readers that your instinct as a parent is a priceless tool. If you feel something is wrong with your child after hours, it is never wrong to immediately head to the emergency room.

Urgent Care:

If you can’t see your pediatrician and your child is experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Ear pain associated with fever and/or ear drainage
  • Fever accompanied by cold symptoms
  • Sore throat with or without white patches but does not have drooling or change in voice tone
  • Pink eye with eye drainage or redness but without visual changes or direct pain behind the eye
  • Mild symptoms, like vomiting or diarrhea but no belly pain, blood in stool, or signs of dehydration
  • A minor cut or sprain

Picking the Right Urgent Care Center:

A lot of centers will see pediatric patients but only have doctors for adults, so here are my tips to finding the right urgent care center:

  • Don’t just go to the first urgent care center you see.
  • Call ahead to find out if they see pediatric patients and if they have a pediatrician in house.
  • Research the closest pediatric hospitals to see if the have an associated urgent care center.
  • Call your local pediatric emergency room to see if they have a fast track or urgent care component.
  • Ask other parents for recommendations.

Emergency Room:

Reasons to seek medical attention from a pediatric ER if your child experiences the following:

  • Is under 2 months old and has a fever
  • May have a broken bone with swelling or deformity
  • Any head injury
  • Vomiting associated with persistent abdominal pain and signs of dehydration (dry lips, decrease urination, inability to tolerate anything by mouth)
  • Difficulty breathing or chest pain
  • A seizure
  • A large cut, especially in younger children who need sedation or behavioral support while repairing a laceration
  • Any of these symptoms that parents should never ignore

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