Urgent Care or Emergency Department: Which One Is Right for Your Child’s Needs?

Illness and injury seldom strike at convenient times. Croupy coughs and earaches get worse at night, playground falls are common during evenings and weekends and wheezing pays no attention to work schedules or family plans. Not so long ago, parents had two choices for after-hours medical care: wait for the doctor’s office to open or head to the local emergency room. Today’s parent has more choices, including urgent care centers, grocery store clinics and the newest player in town – the stand-alone ER.

Start with Your Regular Doctor

Unless your child is facing a life-threatening problem, always start with a call to your child’s doctor. The medical home is an important place, and the person who cares for your son or daughter on a regular basis can help you choose the best course of action. Perhaps there is something you can do at home and a visit to the office can wait until tomorrow. Maybe an urgent care center is the right fit. It’s also possible your child needs emergency help right away. Your doctor is happy to provide this guidance, even when the office is closed.

The Urgent Care Center

There are many choices, but the best urgent care for kids is the one designed especially for them. Children are not little adults and they deserve special care from providers with pediatric training and expertise. Urgent care centers are great when same-day treatment is needed, but the situation doesn’t rise to the level of an emergency. Here are some examples:

  • Allergic reactions without difficulty breathing
  • Mild to moderate asthma / wheezing
  • Possibility of a broken bone
  • Head injuries
  • Minor cuts, scrapes and burns
  • Fevers and rashes
  • Sore throats, runny noses, coughs and earaches
  • Vomiting and diarrhea

The Emergency Room

Trips to the emergency department should be reserved for those with significant illness or injury and conditions requiring hospital admission or surgery. If in doubt, your doctor can help you decide. Here are some examples of conditions requiring emergency room care:

  • Allergic reactions with difficulty breathing
  • Severe asthma / wheezing
  • Obviously broken bones
  • Large gaping wounds and serious burns
  • Falls from significant height
  • Seizures or loss of consciousness
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Fever in young infants

If your child’s condition appears severe or life-threatening, be sure to call 911.

The Stand-Alone ER

Emergency departments without an attached hospital are the newest option in after-hours care. These provide the same expertise and services as the regular emergency room, but are best suited when hospital admission or surgery is unlikely (although transfer to the hospital is possible). Stand-alone emergency centers might be closer to home and frequently offer shorter wait times than a hospital’s main ER.

A Word about Cost

Emergency departments never close and must stand ready to treat anything that comes through the door. This requires more staff and supplies and treatment options and resources than a doctor’s office or urgent care. This degree of expertise and readiness is comforting for families and can be life-saving for many kids, but it comes with a price. Trips to emergency departments and stand-alone emergency centers cost more than a doctor’s office or urgent care visit, and insurance companies typically pass this higher cost along in the form of bigger co-pays.

At the End of the Day

Despite these options, the medical home is still the best place to start when your child has an illness or injury. Pediatricians take phone calls when the office is closed for a reason – they care about your kids and want to guide your family on the best course of treatment.

Here’s more information about the Main Campus Emergency Department and the Lewis Center Emergency Department at Nationwide Children’s. We also have ideas on choosing the right urgent care for your child and a list of locations for Nationwide Children’s Urgent Care Centers.

Dr Mike is an emergency pediatrician and host of PediaCast at Nationwide Children’s.

Mike Patrick, MD
Dr. Mike is an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s and host of PediaCast, our pediatric podcast for moms and dads. Each week, PediaCast covers news parents can use, answers listener questions, and delivers interviews with pediatric experts on a variety of topics. Dr Mike is also an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, where he serves as a faculty advisor for medical students. On the home front, he is married with two kids: a college-aged daughter and a son in high school. Prior to working in the emergency department, Dr Mike spent 10 years in a busy private practice, a time he says most prepared him for the practical advice he shares on PediaCast. Dr Mike also has an interest in roller skating. He learned to walk with skates on his feet, and his first job (age 10) was as a disc jockey at his hometown roller skating rink. He has also worked as a DJ at two radio stations, experiences which further prepared him to host our podcast!

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