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When Should You Go to the Emergency Room or the Immediate Care Center?

Northwestern Medicine
Emergency Medicine and Trauma June 09, 2017

Sometimes the choice is clear. With sudden chest pain, difficulty breathing or possible stroke symptoms, your first stop should be to call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. But what about those ailments that we’re much more likely to experience — that small cut or sore throat, the sprained ankle or pink eye? These issues may not be life-threatening, but that doesn’t mean they can wait.

Knowing the different treatment options at Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care Centers or the Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Northwestern Lake Forest or Northwestern Grayslake Emergency Rooms could not only save your life, but also time and money.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans visit the Emergency Department roughly 130.4 million times each year. In contrast, 153 million patients a year are treated at urgent care centers and the volume continues to grow as urgent care centers are predicted to increase by 2021 reports the Urgent Care Association of America. Despite the disparity in patient visits, urgent care centers haven’t seen a shift in slowing the pace of emergency visits to emergency departments.

“With immediate care centers becoming more prevalent, we see this as a service to our patients where they can get timely care at a more affordable cost compared to an emergency room visit,” said Matthew Kippenhan, MD, medical director of Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care River North and Lakeview. “Therefore, our immediate care centers can provide high quality care to our patients with consultations from an emergency medicine physician, family medicine or med-peds (primary care physician that has background in pediatrics as well as an internist) – something that is unavailable at other immediate care centers or retail clinics.”

Northwestern Medicine operates immediate care centers located in Deerfield, Glenview, Evanston, Lakeview, River North and Vernon Hills said Kippenhan.

“In many ways, immediate care is an extension of a primary care physician’s office,” Kippenhan added. “Sometimes people can’t get an appointment at their doctor’s office so we fill in the gap by diagnosing and treating things like sore throats, coughs, ear aches and simple cuts and sprains. While these aliments may be considered minor in the medical community, they are not minor to the person experiencing them.”

Other conditions best treated at immediate care centers include asthma, diarrhea, flu, pink eye and urinary tract infections. Minor accidents, skin problems, animal bites and sprains can also be treated at an immediate care center.

On the other hand, the Northwestern Medicine Emergency Department is more appropriate for patients with severe medical issues such as a blow to the head, concerning stomach pains or profuse vomiting. If you need advanced imaging, intravenous treatments or extensive blood work, the best place is the emergency room, said Christopher Beach, MD, chief of emergency medicine at Lake Forest Hospital.

“Emergency medicine physicians provide fast care for medical conditions that are or could be life-threatening such as a heart attack or stroke,” said Beach, who is also the vice chair of the department of emergency medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “If you or a loved one are involved in an emergency, remember to bring a list of medications and allergies. Communication is the first step in getting every patient the best possible treatment in the most expeditious manner.”

Patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart disease, or who may be dehydrated and in need of IV therapy, should bypass immediate care and go directly to their nearest hospital, Beach suggested.

Learn more about Northwestern Medicine. Northwestern Medicine immediate care centers are open 8 am—8 pm, 365 days a year and no appointment is needed. 

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