Urgent Care Medicine is the provision of immediate medical service offering outpatient care for the treatment of acute and chronic illness and injury. It requires a broad and comprehensive fund of knowledge to provide such care. Excellence in care for patients with complex and or unusual conditions is founded on the close communication and collaboration between the urgent care medicine physician, the specialists and the primary physicians.

Urgent care does not replace your primary care physician. An urgent care center is a convenient option when someone's regular physician is on vacation or unable to offer a timely appointment. Or, when illness strikes outside of regular office hours, urgent care offers an alternative to waiting for hours in a hospital Emergency Room.

Understanding the Scope of Urgent Care Practice

Because urgent care practitioners are on the "front lines" of medicine, they need to be proficient in evaluating and caring for - at least initially - any patient who walks into an urgent care medicine center or urgent care clinic. For this reason, there is some overlap in the scope of practice between Urgent Care Medicine and all existing medical specialties that involve direct patient care. Because of the convenience of Urgent Care Centers, patients choose these facilities when they are unable to see their usual doctor in a timely fashion or choose not to go to a hospital emergency department.

For most patients seen in an ambulatory medicine setting, the Urgent Care Medicine specialist can fully care for the presenting problem, either independently or in consultation with another specialist. Sometimes patients will require follow-up with or referral to another specialist, transfer to an emergency department, or direct hospitalization (with inpatient care by the consultant). Urgent Care Medicine specialists do not perform surgery (other than wound repair and skin lesion removal), do not care for inpatients, and typically do not engage in the continuing medical care of chronic medical problems.

Of all of the existing specialties, Urgent Care Medicine shares the most in common with family practice and emergency medicine, though there is enough uniqueness of practice that Urgent Care Medicine, in reality, is a separate specialty with a distinct knowledge base, skill set, and required breadth of experience. Urgent Care Medicine shares with Family Practice its broad scope: caring for both male and female patients of any age with any complaint. Urgent Care Medicine differs from Family Practice in that its primary focus is on acute medical problems.

Because specialization is the result of focused attention and having experience in a particular area, acute care represent the majority of what Urgent Care Medicine specialists do - versus Family Practice practitioners who divide their time caring for some acute, but predominately chronic health issues. Because of this, their experience and expertise in acute care is more extensive than that of Family Practice practitioners. The Family Practice's area of practice that is distinct from Urgent Care Medicine involves continuity of medical care and, for some Family Practice practitioners, inpatient care and obstetrics.

As with Family Practice, Urgent Care Medicine shares a broad scope with Emergency Medicine as well: caring for both male and female patients of any age with any complaint. Urgent Care Medicine differs from Emergency Medicine in that its primary focus is on acute medical problems at the lower end of the severity spectrum. Urgent Care Medicine specialists have expertise evaluating and treating these patients with only simple office-based laboratory tests (e.g., urinalysis, pregnancy test, rapid strep assay) and X-ray. There is no immediate access to extensive laboratory testing or advanced imaging (e.g., CT scanning and ultrasound). Those who present to an urgent care center who, in the judgment of the Urgent Care Medicine specialist, require this, are transferred to a hospital emergency department. Due to the simpler administrative procedures and costs associated with office-based versus hospital-based practice, similar care in an Urgent Care setting can generally be provided more quickly and economically than in an Emergency Medicine setting. The area of Emergency Medicine's practice that is distinctive from Urgent Care Medicine involves the definitive care of critically ill patients and the ability to observe patients for an extended period of time.

The Emergency Room vs. the Urgent Care Clinic

Urgent Care services are medically necessary services which are required for an illness or injury that would not result in further disability or death if not treated immediately, but require professional attention and have the potential to develop such a threat if treatment is delayed longer than 24 hours. An urgent care condition could be…

  • Allergic reaction
  • Nausea
  • Back pain
  • Pneumonia
  • Conjunctivitis (Pink eye)
  • Rash
  • Diarrhea
  • Sinusitis
  • Ear infection
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Sprains/Strains
  • Insect bites
  • Upper Respiratory Infection
  • Lacerations
  • Vaginitis
  • Migraine
  • Vomiting
  • Mononucleosis
  • Wounds/Abscess

Urgent Care: Know your terms and know where to go

Retail clinics

These facilities, in outlets such as Walgreens, CVS and Wal-Mart stores, treat a limited set of common illnesses: sore throats, ear infections, sinus infections, women's bladder infections, pinkeye and non-complicated respiratory conditions. They're staffed by nurse practitioners, nurses with advanced degrees who can write prescriptions. There are approximately 1,200 retail clinics across the U.S.

Urgent care centers

The scope of services is broader and includes treatment of wounds, injuries, fractures, asthma attacks and mild concussions. Most centers have X-ray and lab facilities; some are adding more advanced diagnostic equipment. Physicians typically provide the bulk of medical services, helped by nurses and physicians' assistants. There are an estimated 8,000 urgent care centers in the U.S.

Emergency rooms

Intended to provide care to people with serious medical issues that need expert, immediate evaluation and treatment -- conditions such as traumatic injuries, heart attacks and strokes. About 40 percent of patients who visit hospital ERs have conditions that do not require high-level emergency care. Because of overcrowding, waits in ERs average three to four hours, and in some areas are much longer.

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