ER or Urgent Care CenterSooner or later, all parents face an unexpected medical meltdown. The baby spikes a scorching fever in the wee hours. The preschooler swallows something suspicious. When faced with an emergency what’s a parent to do? Head straight for the ER? Or a local urgent care center? 

Don’t load your sick kiddo into the car just yet. The best first move is to contact your child’s pediatrician, says Ernest Leva, MD, director of the Pediatric Emergency Department at The Bristol Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital in New Brunswick. With knowledge of your child’s medical history and any existing conditions, your pediatrician is best equipped to steer you toward the appropriate option, says Leva. And whatever course you take, notifying your pediatrician allows her to update your child’s medical chart and follow up as needed.

Heading for the ER

While urgent care centers can provide fast care for minor injuries, Leva says that choosing a center first can slow down access to critical treatments and often patients end up being transferred to an emergency department anyway. 

If a child needs a CAT scan, IV hydration, a broken bone set, or surgery of any kind, the child is much better off in a hospital, where the procedure can be performed quickly, says Leva. The Centers for Disease Control report that more than 98 percent of ER patients can be treated on-site without being transferred to another facility. 

When to consider an urgent care center instead of an ER—>


Choosing Urgent Care

When should you consider an urgent care center instead of an ER? These centers can be a quick alternative to a doctor’s office visit, where patients can be treated for minor cuts, obtain prescriptions, and get basic labwork and x-rays. Another factor is cost. According to insurance provider Blue Cross Blue Shield, the average emergency room visit has a pre-insurance price tag of $1,045, while urgent care comes in at just $130.

But before you write off the ER as too spendy, consider this: If your child needs to be transferred to an ER after visiting urgent care, as many do, you’ll end up footing the bill for both. Most insurance plans cover emergency room care, and federal law requires that ERs treat all patients, regardless of insurance status. 

The Bottom Line

“Anytime a parent perceives a life-threatening condition, 911 should be activated and the patient should be brought to the emergency room,” says Leva. Conditions requiring a swift ER visit include significant injuries or deformities to limbs; difficulty breathing; injection of a foreign body; head injury or concussion; significant trauma or bleeding; sudden severe pain; severe allergic reactions; and dizziness, disorientations, or sudden changes in mental functioning. 

Fevers, vomiting, diarrhea, and flu-like symptoms should be directed to your pediatrician, says Leva, while concerns about possible poisoning warrant a call to the local Poison Control Center whose experts will advise whether your child needs to head straight to the ER.  And you can breathe easier, knowing you’re doing the right thing.

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and mom.