Urgent care is not an emergency room or (strictly speaking) a doctor's office, although it has aspects of both. Although people with chronic medical problems may seek treatment in an urgent care environment, the focus is primarily on the treatment of acute illness or injury. Unlike ongoing primary medical care, urgent care needs may be met in a single visit, and the patient may never return. However, an urgent care clinic is not the place for a heart attack, severe bleeding or major illnesses.
Doctors who work in urgent care are usually generalists. They have typically been trained in family medicine, internal medicine, or pediatrics. These doctors look at the broad picture of health rather than narrowing in on an organ like the heart or a specific disease or medical problem. Urgent care doctors may only see a patient once and may not have any information other than what the patient tells them, so they must be able to make a diagnosis with limited information. They must also be able to care for patients of both sexes and any age.
A medical condition that can't wait 24 hours or more for treatment is usually a reason to go to urgent care. Urgent care clinics handle sprains and strains, minor lacerations, eye irritations, or a broken finger or toe. Patients who are having an asthma attack might be treated in urgent care. A cold, flu, vomiting, or diarrhea could send a patient to urgent care, as could a bad cough or a urinary tract infection.
Urgent care is not for life-threatening emergencies. A patient with a serious head injury, major trauma, or broken bone sticking through the skin should be treated in an emergency room. Other conditions that should be treated in an emergency room include difficulty breathing, uncontrollable bleeding, moderate to severe burns, knife wounds, or gunshot wounds. Nor is an urgent care clinic a place for a baby under the age of three months who has a fever.
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