Urgent Care: What Is It and What Should I Expect?

Roger Wu, MD, MBA, FACEP
July 26, 2021
4 mins

Urgent care clinics have been in existence only since the 1970s and probably first evolved as a solution to the problems of long waits for primary care appointments and overcrowded, expensive emergency department visits. Since then, the industry has evolved to more than 10,000 centers across the United States — currently, 89.4 percent of the population is within a 20-minute drive of an urgent care clinic.

Part of the industry’s growth is due to the fact that there are many medical conditions that require clinical evaluation and management within 24 to 48 hours but that are not life- or limb-threatening and can be treated in a more patient-friendly environment than an emergency room. According to one study, as many as 37 percent of patients who go to an emergency department could potentially be treated outside of it — for instance, in an urgent care setting. (Read “Urgent Care or Emergency Care: What’s the Difference?” to learn more about how to decide where to go when an unexpected medical issue arises.)

Urgent care facilities provide convenient treatment for medical conditions that are not life-threatening, such as the flu or a rash. They usually have extended hours and are open on weekends to provide more accessibility to patients who need immediate care but can’t immediately see their primary care provider. 

What Happens at an Urgent Care Clinic?

It’s not possible to list every possible condition that can be treated at an urgent care clinic, so I’ll say that from my perspective as a physician, I think about the diagnostic and management tools available in this care setting. This can help a patient understand what type of care to expect. 

This typically includes:

  • A thorough history and physical examination: The “History of Present Illness” is the series of questions the provider asks to better understand the characteristics of your health concern. This is by far the most important component of every clinical evaluation and can lead to a diagnosis more than 80 percent of the time. These include diagnoses often seen at urgent care centers such as the common cold (viral upper respiratory infections), flu, sore throat (pharyngitis), or different types of rashes. As William Osler once remarked, “Always listen to the patient, they might be telling you the diagnosis!”
  • Point-of-care tests: After the history and physical examination, providers may order certain tests based on their clinical suspicion. These tests typically have rapid turnaround times of within 15 minutes and can include tests for strep throat, flu, COVID-19, diabetes, urinary tract infections, and certain types of heart attacks.
  • X-rays: Many musculoskeletal injuries may warrant an X-ray to assess for fractures, and certain characteristics related to a cough may need a chest X-ray to look for signs of a bacterial pneumonia.
  • Point-of-care ultrasound: At select urgent care centers, there may be handheld ultrasounds that can be used to assess for signs of abscesses, kidney stones, gallstones, and blood clots.
  • Blood draw for outpatient labs: In some instances, the provider may order non-urgent labs, such as blood counts, kidney function, electrolytes, and liver function labs to work up symptoms such as bleeding, new high blood pressure, or abdominal pain.
  • Procedures: Common procedures in an urgent care setting include splinting for simple types of fractures, incision and drainage of abscesses, and suturing and wound care for many lacerations.
  • Emergency department referral: On occasion, based on the new information gathered from the list above, your urgent care provider will recommend that you be transferred to an emergency department for diagnostic tests or care that cannot be provided at the urgent care center. We will call the emergency department ahead of time to provide them with your information.

Generally, urgent care clinics are staffed by physicians with specialty training in family medicine or emergency medicine, or advanced practice clinicians (physician assistants and/or nurse practitioners) with prior family medicine, urgent care, or emergency medicine experience.

I hope this alleviates any anxiety about seeking medical care and better prepares you for your next urgent care visit. At Carbon Health, our providers are standing by to provide urgent care services both in-person and virtually, with same-day appointments, walk-in availability, and evening and weekend accessibility. Learn more about Carbon Health.

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Roger Wu, MD, MBA, FACEP

Roger Wu, MD, MBA, FACEP, is a board-certified emergency medicine physician and Carbon Health’s National Medical Director. Before joining Carbon Health, he served as an emergency department medical director at TeamHealth, where he was awarded Medical Director of the Year. As a practicing physician and leader, he enjoys living at the intersection of medicine, leadership, technology, and systems design.