When an individual has a problem that needs attention but is not life-threatening, an urgent care center serves as an alternative to a visit to the emergency room.
Minor burns, sprains obtained by falls or from athletics, or an intense sort of threat that individuals feel cannot wait until a primary physician is available are reasons to go to an urgent care center, such as the Williamsport Urgent Care Center, 1953 E. Third St., said Thomas Curry, senior medical director at Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
"Things that need urgent attention but do not need immediate attention ... where life or limb is not at risk" can be treated at such a center, he said.
Dr. Eric Longenbach examines a patient’s X-rays at the MedExpress Urgent Care on East Third Street Friday.
In addition to treating general illnesses and simple wounds, urgent care centers provide other necessary care that physicians provide, said Dr. Nicholas Bower, medical director of MedExpress. The centers also offer sports physicals and flu shots.
"It's easier to tell you the things we don't treat," he said.
People who experience chest pain or think they might be having a stroke or heart attack, people who lose consciousness and those with drug and alcohol intoxication still should visit emergency rooms.
Urgent care centers benefit patients and emergency room workers.
"The emergency rooms in northcentral and northeastern Pennsylvania do have issues related to large volumes of patients and a prolonged wait time," Curry said.
At an urgent care center, Bower said, customers are treated within an hour.
"Compared to an emergency room, our wait time is very, very short," he said.
Estimates show 15 to 20 percent of emergency room visits are for non-emergencies, Curry said.
"The use of the emergency room for treatments that are non-emergent is an expensive undertaking," he said. "If we're able to help in creating alternate sites for treatment of non-emergencies, it will help in expenses for utilizing the emergency room when it's not the best place to take care of that problem."
The increased number of people using the emergency room is not a local phenomenon, but happening around the country, Curry said.
"It's a growing issue," he said.
Because urgent care centers are relatively new, only a limited number exist, he said.
"We expect it will be a growing number as well ... across the country," Curry said. "This is clearly a development trend, now starting to take hold in northcentral and northeastern Pennsylvania."
Blue Cross began to include urgent care centers in its coverage plan as of March 1, he said.
The centers are not meant to replace primary care physicians.
"We strongly endorse the primary care physician," Curry said. "The reality of times are our members are having some difficulty accessing physicians."
Some of the reasons individuals might not be able to see their regular doctor could be the physician's schedule is full, the individual is not near the doctor or the individual is not free when the doctor is, he said.
Williamsport's urgent care center is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. For more information, call 323-4072.