It’s Saturday morning and your child’s skin is itching like crazy. Red, itchy welts have broken out and while you’re sure it’s just hives, there’s that nagging doubt: What if it’s more serious?
Braving the lengthy line at the emergency room is a non-starter yet waiting until Monday morning to call for an appointment with your primary care provider doesn’t work either. That leaves a third option: do you go to your local urgent care facility?
For some people struggling with non-threatening medical issues, the differences between primary and urgent care can be less than obvious.
“There is a line that can be very difficult to explain,” says Dr. Aaron Campbell, an urgent care physician at the University of Utah Redstone Health Center in Park City. But when you have a child sick with pneumonia or battling a high fever and it’s after hours or on the weekend, then urgent care becomes your go-to. Think of it as your after-hours consulting room for those issues that just can’t wait but aren’t serious enough to warrant the ER.
Urgent care is for when it doesn’t make sense to wait two weeks to see your doctor. Low-acuity, quick-onset issues that afflict people, such as coughs, colds, sore throats, skin infections, a broken bone. It’s where you’ve jammed your finger and it needs stitches, or you’ve had a headache for 24 hours.
“Urgent care is for when it doesn’t make sense to wait two weeks to see your doctor,” says Campbell, whose background is in primary care and sports medicine. He ticks off “low-acuity, quick-onset issues that afflict people, such as coughs, colds, sore throats, skin infections, a broken bone. It’s where you’ve jammed your finger and it needs stitches, or you’ve had a headache for 24 hours.”
Flexibility is one of urgent care’s biggest selling points, along with the longer hours. The Redstone clinic is open, like most urgent care facilities, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except for Thanksgiving and Christmas day. Most urgent cares are not open 24/7. You can walk in off the street expecting to get quick treatment and in an easily accessible location like Campbell’s clinic, which is in the midst of a Park City commercial and retail development.
But not all non-emergency medical concerns dictate rushing to urgent care. When should you focus instead on visiting your primary care provider?
Dr. Kirsten Rupp has a primary care practice at U of U Health’s Farmington Health Center in Davis County. She was drawn to primary care for the continuity of patient care that lies at its heart.
“I love seeing entire families,” she says. “Much of what I do is follow-up on chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes,” says Rupp.
What particularly interests Rupp is preventative medicine, be it immunizations for infectious diseases or cancer screenings. “That aspect is very appealing to me. It’s more holistic.” She also values the long-term relationships she develops with patients. “After multiple visits, you know what their hobbies are, what makes them tick. You see them as a person, not just a medical problem.”
A primary care provider can use a patient’s healthcare history as a baseline for any changes that will help a patient stay healthy.
“That’s the art of medicine: having a relationship can be helpful as you develop treatment plans going forward,” Rupp says. And it’s not only barriers to specific medical care identified from prior treatments. She can also take into account a patient’s personal situation.
“If someone is struggling to put food on the table, they might not have $40 to spend on medication.” She’ll tell patients with limited resources, “‘I know what you’re struggling with. Here are some other options.’”
What unites primary care and urgent care, ultimately, is that in the world of newly specialized medicine, both are points of entry into the same system, each, in their own way, meeting the patient, as Rupp says, “where they’re at.”