Why taking your children to Emergency Departments is not always a good idea

When your child is sick or injured, your parenting instincts take over to identify the speediest, least traumatic way to make them better. Traditionally acute illnesses and injuries may have driven you toward the nearest Emergency Department (ED) [Editor: Otherwise known as Accident & Emergency for our UK readers], but now there may be a better option with the rise of Urgent Care clinics. Undoubtedly there is no replacement for an ED if your child is critically ill or injured, but keep in mind that Urgent Care clinics are adept at treating lacerations, sprains and strains, burns, asthma attacks and animal bites…common childhood ailments that are actually more suitable being treated in an Urgent Care clinic. Before heading to your local ED, consider the following advantages to using an Urgent Care clinic:

Fear Factor

For little kids, an Emergency Department can be tremendously intimidating and scary, potentially making them more anxious about their situation and what is going to happen. The Urgent Care is a much smaller, more intimate setting where you are less likely to be exposed to traumatic events, sights and sounds. In addition Urgent Care centers are kid friendly and look to keep your child entertained and occupied to reduce their anxiety level. You can help by telling your child what to expect and by keeping your own anxiety levels in check. Remember that future trips for medical care may be affected by any negative experiences your child has had in the past, so try to keep the experience as positive as possible.

Speed of service

Most Urgent Cares offer wait times of 20 minutes or less, compared to Emergency Departments which notoriously involve long wait times, often several hours. The life-threatening emergencies ahead of you at an ED will unquestionably take precedence, so your wait time will be unpredictable. Waiting around in any setting is challenging for parents and kids, let alone when your child is frightened and feeling ill or in pain. Choosing an Urgent Care will likely save you not only time, but have your child treated and on their way with less frustration and tears. Choosing an Urgent Care clinic also frees up space in the EDs so they can focus on those with life-threatening illnesses and injuries.


Although the Urgent Care clinics can’t compete with the 24/7 nature of EDs, they are still open later into the evening than your pediatrician’s office and are open over the weekend. All Urgent Cares offer walk-in appointments, and some have an online section that will let you check the current wait times before you head over. Additionally, many are located in convenient neighborhood shopping centers, offering several options that may be nearer to you than your hospital’s ED and thus a shorter drive time when your child is hurting.


Health insurance companies are recognizing the growing benefits to using an Urgent Care clinic over an Emergency Department. With their lower overhead cost, they are a cost-effective option for everyone. Insurance plans will not only cover your visit to the Urgent Care, but usually at a much lower rate than the Emergency Department. Check your specific plan but almost every plan will cover Urgent Care visits. [Editor: Possibly less appropriate for our non-US readers]

Available Services

You are likely fully aware of the complete array of services offered at an Emergency Department, but you may not realize that the majority of Urgent Care clinics offer x-ray services, EKGs, the ability to place IVs and lab services. They may also have the most common medications prescribed on hand so you don’t need to make a special trip to the pharmacy…and even if you do, pharmacies often position themselves in close proximity to Urgent Care centers so you won’t have to travel far. It is nice to know that all these services that you may traditionally associate with an ED are actually readily accessible at your Urgent Care clinic.

Communication with your pediatrician

Urgent Care clinics are trying to position themselves as an extension to your physician’s office, so they can help with the more urgent issues or during after-hours. As such, Urgent Care clinics strive to communicate effectively with your child’s physician and will send electronic records detailing the care they provided, including any x-rays or lab reports. Communication is key in keeping your child’s pediatrician in the know with any care provided outside of their office.

When you are not sure whether to go to the ED or an Urgent Care, consult the following chart or you can always call your doctor for advice.

Urgent Care facilities can usually provide the treatment you need for the following common childhood ailments:

  • Asthma
  • Allergic reactions
  • Lacerations
  • Non-displaced fractures
  • Sprains
  • Sports injuries
  • Cold/flu symptoms
  • GI issues
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Foreign object removal
  • Earaches
  • Fevers (if over 2 months old)
  • Dehydration
  • Minor burns
  • Pink eye
The following types of conditions need to be treated in the Emergency Department:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Decreasing responsiveness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Displaced fractures
  • Poisoning
  • Choking
  • Smoke inhalation
  • Near drowning
  • Electric shocks
  • Seizures
  • Uncontrollable bleeding
  • Fevers in infants
  • Major trauma or high impact accident
  • Head or neck injuries
  • Injuries to the mouth or face

By Jack Roberts, Health Policy Consultant


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