Urgent Care or ER for Kids? Resources to Help Decide

My husband recently had an “incident” with one of our dogs, Nelson, and ended up being bitten. Now I should clarify that we have two wonderful dogs who are both very sweet and are absolutely full members of the family. Nevertheless, Nelson, – who we’ve had since he was a puppy – weighs in at 100 pounds and is EXTREMELY fond of food, or anything remotely resembling or smelling of food.

urgent care doctor helping boyThis incident happened because Nelson got a food soaked paper towel and had retreated with it under a corner table – his usual “safe” space. My husband got plenty of doggy warnings not to come near – and yet he insisted on trying to drag Nelson out and get the paper towel. The result was a series of impressive and bloody puncture wounds on his fingers. This was also rather ironic since he’s known among family and friends as the “dog whisperer” – and was rated as such in a quiz from an excellent post on dog bites which ran on this site last November.

As a result, he spent over an hour in the ER getting checked out, filling out paperwork about our dog, and…incurring over $600 in costs to us. It was only later, when we took our son to our local Urgent Care center for a sprained ankle, that it occurred to us that maybe Urgent Care could have taken care of the dog bite issue. My husband went to the ER because he thought he might need stitches. In the end he didn’t need them – but it turns out that our Urgent Care does stitches for minor cuts and injuries – at a much lower cost. If we’d only known this, he would have gotten the care he needed for about $500 less!

Given this incident, it seemed like a good idea to take stock of what Urgent Care typically offers, especially with respect to children. Urgent care is ideal in “non-emergency situations” for after-hours care or when you can’t get in to see your regular doctor. But what is “non-emergency”? Apparently a minor broken bone is non-emergency, since our Urgent Care handles these and has onsite x-rays. But it’s not always so easy to determine the difference between “urgent” and “emergency”. Thankfully some excellent web resources can help with that. The Children’s Hospital Colorado has a nice overview of when go to urgent care versus the emergency room. Head straight to the ER if your child’s skin or lips have turned blue, your child is unresponsive or difficult to arouse, or your child is having serious trouble breathing. Urgent care can usually handle simple cuts, injuries or illnesses – including fractures (unless the bone is sticking out!). The full guidance can be found on their website.

Seattle Children’s Hospital has a very handy review on their website, listed by condition or issue – and they have a nice downloadable version which you can print out (scroll down to the bottom of their webpage). Further below is a snapshot of some of the guidancethey provide.

Buyer Beware

One thing I learned from my research on this topic is that the services offered by Urgent Care centers are not yet standardized, especially for children. This is essentially a new industry and the rapid growth of these types of centers has spawned – as described by a doctor at Johns Hopkins in this article – “a mishmash of clinics, some offering fairly sophisticated care, while others providing only the most rudimentary.” And general Urgent Care centers are sometimes uncomfortable treating more serious pediatric concerns. This field is so new that the American Academy of Pediatrics only just established a sub-committee on pediatric treatment in urgent care in 2015. So, probably the best advice is to check out what services your local Urgent Care center provides – ideally in advance of needing them! – and follow your instinct if you think the ER is really the better bet.

urgent care guidance

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About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


4 Responses to “Urgent Care or ER for Kids? Resources to Help Decide”

  1. Hazel Owens says:

    It’s amazing how much you could have saved if your husband went to urgent care! I’ve been to the ER several times in my life, though most of those occasions were actual emergencies. However, it’s good to know that non-life-threatening injuries, even if they are somewhat serious, can be handled for a lower price at an urgent care center. Thanks for the information!

  2. Abélia says:

    My kids have gotten into scrapes before and I’ve never known whether to take them to the ER or the urgent care. It’s good to know that services offered by urgent care centers are not yet standardized. Thank you for addressing this important question in your article.

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