If you’re not feeling well or have experienced an injury, two options for care include an emergency department or a walk in clinic. While they can both treat a variety of conditions, there are a number of differences between the two and what you can expect when you visit.

Read on to learn more and better understand which option is best for your needs.

What to expect at a walk in clinic

If you’re experiencing a minor, simple, or non-life-threatening illness or injury such as cold or flu symptoms, sprains or strains, minor cuts or burns, allergies, gastrointestinal issues, or similar symptoms, a walk in clinic can likely help.

If you decide to visit a walk in clinic, here’s what you can expect:

  • Find a walk in clinic in your neighborhood. Many clinics are conveniently located in your community, so you don’t have to travel far for care. And, many are open during evenings, weekends, and holidays as well as regular business hours.
  • Check-in online. You do not need an appointment to visit a walk in clinic and can just come in whenever you need care. However, some clinics offer services like online check-in to help streamline your visit. Online check-in allows you to enter basic information and essentially “reserve a spot” in line.
  • Prepare your paperwork. When you arrive at the clinic, you’ll be asked to register. You may need to provide a valid photo ID, insurance card (if you have coverage), cash/check/credit/debit card for a copay or self-pay fee, and a mask or face covering.
  • See the doctor. When ready, you’ll be called into an exam room where the provider will get more information about your concerns. They may ask questions, do an exam, and perform any necessary tests to help find a diagnosis or correct/fix an injury.
  • Create a treatment plan. walk in clinics work to provide the best possible treatment for your condition. This could include writing a prescription for an antibiotic or other medication or recommending follow-up care with another provider. Regardless of your plan, these providers will ensure you understand your diagnosis, treatment, and next steps before you leave.

Once you’re finished with the provider, you are free to head home and start on your road to recovery.

What to expect at an emergency room

If you’re experiencing a severe, urgent, or life-threatening illness or injury such as difficulty breathing, severe injury to the head or neck, severe pain, severe or deep wounds, severe allergic reactions, sudden loss of the ability to speak/walk/see/move or weakness/drooping of one side of the body, you should go to an emergency room or dial 911.

Every visit to the ER is different depending on the severity of your condition, what exams or tests you need, and the required follow-up care. However, if you do need to go to an ER, here are some things you can expect:

  • Find an ER near you. Emergency rooms can be part of a hospital or a stand-alone emergency department (ED). Go to the one closest to you, or if necessary, call for an ambulance to take you there.
  • Check-in. Unless you are taken by ambulance, you’ll need to check in when you arrive. You’ll likely need to provide information about your condition as well as contact and insurance information. There may be other registration requirements.
  • In emergency rooms, patients with the most serious conditions are treated first. Depending on the severity of your condition, you may be taken back to see a doctor right away. Or, you may have to wait.
  • Meet with the doctor. Once you’re ready to be seen, you’ll be led to an exam room where a nurse will likely take your vitals and ask questions about your concerns. Depending on your condition, you could then wait another extended period of time before seeing a doctor.
  • Get any exams, labs, images, or other ordered tests. In some cases, the doctor may be able to treat you right away. In others, they may need to order additional exams, lab work, imaging (like X-ray or MRI), or other tests to help come to a diagnosis and determine the best treatment. The speed at which these happen depends on your condition.
  • Create a treatment plan. Based on the doctor’s diagnosis, they will work with you to create the right treatment plan. This could happen immediately, such as getting stitches or setting a broken bone. It could mean being admitted to the hospital for further testing, monitoring, or treatment. Or, it could also include providing a referral for a follow-up with a specialist.

Once you’re finished, you’ll either be able to go home, or you’ll start your stay as an inpatient at the hospital.

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