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Choosing urgent care or ER: What parents need to know

Parents can struggle with the decision of whether to take their child to an emergency room or urgent care clinic for after-hours care. High co-pays or deductibles can be a concern, and parents don’t always know if their child should be seen or where to go. Parents never want to miss a severe illness or injury or keep their child in pain needlessly. After-hours care can be a great service for the many things that can go wrong after your pediatrician’s office has closed for the day.

Does your child need after-hours care?

Sometimes the decision is relatively simple. Of course, if your child is having severe or life-threatening symptoms, call 911 right away. Also, if there is an injury that is causing a lot of pain or bleeding, or if he is having trouble breathing, it’s important to be seen promptly.

But when the symptoms are more common ailments like fever, cough, sore throat or rash, it can be a bit more difficult to know what to do.

Helping you make a decision

In most cases, the best resource for your child’s health concerns is your pediatrician. Most offices have an on-call line with either a nurse or doctor available to provide advice 24 hours a day. Your child’s doctor knows his history, especially in the case of chronic medical problems. The pediatrician’s office also may have a website with helpful information. If your child has had a recent procedure or surgery or sees specialty care providers, contacting the pediatrician’s office is a great place to start.

Other excellent resources include:

  • Books such as those provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) or Barton Schmitt, or online medical sources such as the AAP website
  • Our Children’s Wisconsin website, where you can find valuable information including examples of which illnesses would be most appropriate for urgent care or the emergency room
  • Children’s On Call, a free mobile app that helps you make informed decisions on what kind of care your child might need

If you use the Internet for information about medical concerns, make sure it is a reputable source like those listed above. Some websites are there to sell you a product or may not have correct or complete information. Children’s Wisconsin and other hospital or government websites are usually a good choice.

Where to go for after-hours care

Once a decision is made to bring your child in for after-hours care, where do you go?

In general, urgent care is for minor illnesses and injuries, while the emergency room is for more serious illnesses and injuries or emergencies. Children’s Wisconsin has four urgent care clinics in the community that have evening and weekend hours. They are staffed by board-certified pediatricians (including myself) and nurse practitioners.

Our urgent care sites are the area’s only walk-in clinics just for kids. Our emergency room is also the only one in the area with doctors and staff trained specifically in emergency care for kids. If your child is having a medical emergency, our emergency room in Wauwatosa is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Trust your instinct

Often, a parent’s intuition is the best thing to follow. That feeling of just knowing something is wrong. Always trust your instinct, especially if it tells you to seek care for your child. Even if a specific treatment isn’t needed, we can often help parents keep their child safe and comfortable at home.

When working with worried parents, I always tell them that it’s my job to find out if something is wrong and to try to relieve them of the responsibility. In urgent care, we have the experience and tools to help find answers for parents — that’s why we’re here.