Urgent care clinics are outpatient facilities where patients can walk-in for a medical consultation, unlike primary care physicians who requires an appointment. Family physicians typically have long waiting times for walk in patients as the doctor needs to fit them in between regularly scheduled appointments. Some family physicians don’t even offer walk in appointments, making it that much more difficult to receive prompt care. Fortunately, urgent care clinics can help cover that gap. Most urgent care clinics work extended hours during the week and weekends with some even open on holidays as well. There are even a few that operate 24×7, but these are rare.
The physicians that work at these clinics are trained to deal with nearly all ailments that are not life threatening. The clinics themselves are well equipped for their purpose of treating non-life threatening illnesses or injuries. If a patient arrives who requires care beyond the capabilities of the doctor or facility, they have the authority to provide first aid and stabilize a patient while referring that patient to and ER so that they care receive proper aid. For patients with a nagging running nose or cold that is impairing their ability to work, urgent care is a great way to receive care when they cannot afford to wait for an appointment with their primary care physician. Patients who suffer something like a cut that requires stitches would also be well served by an urgent care clinic as this sort of wound is not something that would warrant a trip to an ER. These are just a few examples of occasions when seeking care at an urgent care clinic would be more appropriate than an ER visit. Trips to the Emergency Room should be saved for truly life-threatening occasions as otherwise patients take up vital resources from people who truly need them.
There have been some questions among patients about the ethics and standards at an urgent care clinic. These questions originate since urgent care is a relatively new concept and most people are unaware of how it fits in to the overall medical system. People are quite familiar with their primary care doctor and the Emergency Room, and thus have some level of baseline expectations. Let’s take a look at some of the differing factors around urgent care to help settle the questions around ethics and standards:
The doctors at an urgent care center primarily come from a background in either family or emergency medicine. They’ve typically served in private practice, or in a hospital emergency room. This means that they have received the exact same training and education as the other doctors patients have the option of turning to. Some doctors in the urgent care profession will be better than others, but this will be true whether a patient is seeing a doctor in a private practice or at an ER.
It is true that patients will be unlikely to establish a long term relationship with an urgent care doctor. The urgent care model is designed to help patients for infrequent medical issues, and is not intended to provide treatment for conditions that need constant monitoring or follow up. In those instances, a patient would be well advised to find a primary doctor or an appropriate specialist to manage their care.
Referrals to a Specialist
Some of the angst around urgent care results from a patient’s desire to be fully treated at one location, for all of their medical issues. However, as already discussed, urgent care has a specific focus, one more equivalent with what a primary doctor provides, rather than providing holistic treatment. When a case is presented at an urgent care walk in clinic that is beyond the scope of the facility or the doctor’s ability, the patient will be referred to the appropriate specialist. While this doesn’t provide the holistic treatment the patient was perhaps hoping for, it will ensure that they receive the proper care from the proper doctor.
There have been some publicized events of doctors across all segments of the medical industry proscribing unneeded treatments or medications in order to boost their financial bottom line. It is unfortunate that those incidents have cast a pall across all doctors, including those in urgent care. The vast majority of doctors adhere to the Hippocratic Oath and desire to serve patients to the best of their ability. In addition, for urgent care specifically, organizations such as the Urgent Care Association of America provide a good level of oversight for clinics, setting standards and rewarding clinics with accreditation when they follow those standards.
The urgent care industry is one of the fastest growing segments of medical care, owing to its success in following through on its mission to provide quality care to patients as quickly as possible. More and more patients are becoming familiar with the concept, which has led to a better setting of expectations when it comes to the standards and ethics at an urgent care clinic. This combination of industry growth and patient acceptance means we will continue to see urgent care grow as an important piece of our health care system in the years to come.