Emergency department, urgent care center, or an appointment? Differences explained

By Joseph Jones (Madigan Army Medical Center)January 15, 2021

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. – As Madigan continues to follow the highest level of safety precautions as we monitor the surge in COVID-19 cases in our local community and across the country – It is also Flu Season. In order to reduce potential exposure to our patients and staff while also maintaining social distancing in the Emergency Department, Madigan is launching a communications effort to educate our patients that when prompt medical care is needed, it’s important to know how and where to seek appropriate treatment.

Emergency departments, urgent care centers: How are they different?

“The difference between visiting an urgent care center or an emergency room depends on the severity of your health problem,” says Dr. Diane Devita, Madigan’s chief of emergency room operations.

An emergency threatens life, limb, or eyesight. Examples include severe bleeding, spinal cord or back injury, chest pain, broken bones, or difficulty breathing. If you reasonably think you have an emergency, go to the nearest emergency room or call 911.

If your condition is a minor illness or injury, for instance something that you needs medical attention within the next 24 hours, but is not a critical emergency, patients should take advantage of the convenience and TRICARE benefit that allows visits to any TRICARE-Authorized Urgent Care Center to get prompt care without needing a referral to do so.

Urgent care is care you need within 24 hours for a non-emergency illness or injury that requires treatment. Examples include a rising fever or sprained ankle. You should get urgent care before your condition potentially becomes an emergency. Most TRICARE beneficiaries can visit an urgent care center whenever needed, but you should check the urgent care rules for your plan. When possible, visit a TRICARE network provider or a TRICARE-authorized (network or non-network) urgent care center to avoid additional out-of-pocket costs.

Urgent care centers see patients on a walk-in basis and typically have shorter wait times. “Emergency Departments, like ours at Madigan, treat critically ill or injured military beneficiaries. If the ED is overburdened with non-emergency visits, wait times can increase as we triage, or prioritize each patient based on the severity of their condition,” Dr. Devita added.

As a Level II trauma center and partner in the Tacoma Trauma Trust, Madigan Army Medical Center accepts civilian trauma patients from the nearby I-5 corridor. Madigan's ambulance service also covers a section of I-5 just outside of base. In addition to reserving ED manpower and resources during the COVID-19 pandemic and flu season, Madigan is urging patients to avoid unnecessary exposure to illness or significantly longer wait times when other options for care may be more appropriate than visiting the ED depending on your medical need.

When to schedule an appointment with your provider

Health concerns that are not urgent or emergency as described previously should be evaluated by your primary care provider who knows your specific medical history and has a familiarity with you. This is especially important for anyone with chronic health issues or who requires specific accommodations.

If it’s not an urgent care need, and it’s not an emergency, patients are encouraged to set up an appointment by requesting one in the MHS GENESIS Patient Portal, or by calling the Puget Sound Military Appointment Center Puget Sound Military Appointment Center at 1-800-404-4506. In addition to face-to-face visits, virtual and telehealth appointments are also available at Madigan. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Madigan has expanded its telehealth and virtual health options, further increasing access to care for our patients.

If you’re unsure what you need to do, you can always call the MHS Nurse Advice line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-TRICARE (874-2273), option 1. This is a free resource for TRICARE beneficiaries to speak with a Registered Nurse and receive recommendations for the most appropriate level of care. You can also visit mhsnurseadviceline.com for chat or video chat options. From the comfort of their homes, at any time, patients can get valuable guidance, resolution or planned action for their health concerns.

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