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Published on August 27, 2019

You sprain your ankle: ER or urgent care center?

You sprain your ankle: ER or urgent care center?

Your child wakes up with a fever. You twist your knee walking into the house. These events used to mean a trip to the emergency room. But over the last few years, another option has opened: urgent care. How do you know which is best for your needs?

Cape Cod Hospital Emergency Center physician, Craig Cornwall, MD, gives you this checklist to help you make the decision in seeking care and understanding the difference between an ER and urgent care:

What’s the difference? Isn’t going to the emergency room already “urgent”?

You should call 911 or go to the emergency room for more complex or critical medical needs, such as a head injury or a potential stroke.

Despite the name, urgent care centers treat less critical ailments, such as a sprained ankle or a fever.

How should I decide?

In general, urgent care can treat most of the needs of younger, healthier patients.

Older patients often have underlying medical conditions that can complicate treatment. They should head to the ER.

Regardless of age, those with diabetes, a heart condition, or other underlying medical issues should go to the ER, where lab tests and advanced imaging equipment are available for diagnosis and treatment.

Won’t I have to wait a long time in an ER?

Emergency rooms can certainly get busy, especially in the summer months. But, the wait times are typically shorter than at most hospitals. At Cape Cod and Falmouth hospitals, we’ve been averaging about a 25-minute wait to get patients in an exam room and about 40 minutes to see a doctor or nurse.

Are Cape Cod Healthcare’s urgent care centers like community-based ERs?

No. Our four urgent care centers, at Urgent Care Falmouth, Urgent Care Hyannis, Fontaine Outpatient Center (Harwich) and Stoneman Outpatient Center (Sandwich), are well equipped to handle minor injuries, but they do not have the full complement of diagnostic equipment and in-house labs, as our ERs do.

All four urgent care centers have ER-trained physicians on site.

Does it cost the same to go to urgent care or the ER?

While your wallet should not determine where you get your care, choosing the appropriate level of care can mean getting the treatment you need without paying extra.

Urgent care can meet the needs of many patients with lower out-of-pocket costs.

ERs are generally a better choice for patients with complex or critical medical needs:

Choose Urgent Care for:

  • Sore throat or infection
  • Sprains
  • Cuts and lacerations
  • Minor burns
  • Back pain
  • Vomiting, or diarrhea in younger, healthier patients
  • Colds and coughs
  • Fever

Choose the ER or call 911 for:

  • A deep cut that won’t stop bleeding
  • Vomiting or diarrhea in an older patient
  • Bleeding in a patient on blood thinners
  • Poisoning
  • Potential stroke
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weakness
  • Loss of balance
  • Trouble breathing
  • Head injury
  • Allergic reaction