Urgent Care Centers: A New Option for Health

It’s 2 p.m. on a Sunday, and you’ve just twisted your ankle. When you call your doctor, she instructs you to take anti-inflammatories, ice the ankle, and come in the next day if there’s no improvement. Three hours later, your ankle is even more swollen and you can’t put any weight on it. Do you wait it out until morning or go to the nearest emergency room, where you may encounter long waits, high bills and unnecessary tests? These days, there’s usually a third alternative—an urgent-care clinic.

There are approximately 9,000 urgent-care centers in the U.S., a number that has surged since the trend began in the 1990s. These clinics typically offer all-day and after-hours treatment on a walk-in basis, including weekends, and are staffed by doctors, nurse practitioners, or both. Some are affiliated with hospitals, some are part of individual urgent-care chains, and some are part of large drugstore chains. But no matter who runs them, they offer one thing that many patients find lacking when dealing with their primary care doctors: the convenience of being seen immediately.

A Quicker Route to the Doc

Urgent-care centers were created to fill the gap between primary care doctors and emergency rooms. If you’re fairly sure your problem isn’t life threatening but you don’t think you can wait 24 to 48 hours to see your own doctor, a walk-in clinic can save the day. Many of them offer services you can’t get at your primary care physician’s office, such as x-rays or quick-result blood tests. And if you need medication, clinics that are part of retail pharmacies can fill prescriptions for you on site. Many of them take insurance as well.

A Word of Warning

You might be so captivated by the ease of urgent-care centers that you’re tempted to use them for all of your medical needs, but there are limits to what they can do for you. The health professionals who work there can attend to your immediate problem, but they aren’t equipped to take a detailed medical history or give you the personal attention that a primary care physician can.

The doctor you see at an urgent-care clinic probably will not know of any pre-existing conditions you have or be aware of special circumstances that may impact your treatment. That’s why it’s important to make sure all urgent-care visits are reported to your primary doctor so he or she can follow up with you if necessary. Think of urgent-care centers as a nice complement to your primary doctor, not a replacement.

Beware, also, of taking your children to urgent-care centers unless the doctors who staff them are trained in pediatrics. "[These places] often do not correctly diagnose or treat kids," says David Levine, MD, a pediatrician with Summit Medical Group in Westfield, NJ. "For bruises, sprains, and cuts, maybe [they’re okay.] But for fevers, infections, or other things, it is better to call the pediatrician for advice than to just go to one of these centers. I cannot tell you how many kids I have seen get inappropriate antibiotics at urgent centers."

Reviewed by David Levine, MD, Summit Medical Group, NJ.


David Levine, MD, Summit Medical Group. Email interview, 27 March 2014. http://www.summitmedicalgroup.com/doctor/dlevine/

"Retail Clinics." American Academy of Family Physicians. Accessed 20 March 2014. http://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/retail-clinics.html

"The Surge in Urgent Care Centers: Emergency Department Alternative or Costly Convenience?" Center for Studying Health System Change. Accessed 20 March 2014. http://www.hschange.org/CONTENT/1366/

"Future of Urgent Care." American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine. Accessed 20 March 2014. http://aaucm.org/about/future/default.aspx