Northwest Health Winter 2010

Urgent Care: What to Expect

A sudden injury or painful symptoms is scary. But knowing what to do, where to go, and what to expect can ease the stress.

Go to: Northwest Health Index

Let's say it's Sunday afternoon, and you've just taken a spill on an icy walkway and think your leg might be broken. Or your knife slipped while you were chopping vegetables, causing a deep, bloody gash. Or you have a sharp pain on your right side and are worried it's appendicitis.

Having a sudden injury or painful symptoms is scary, but knowing what to do, where to go, and what to expect if your destination is a Group Health Urgent Care Center can make the experience a little easier. To find out what you should know, we talked to Group Health staff and members familiar with our Urgent Care Centers. Here's what we learned.

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Unsure what to do? Call our Consulting Nurse Service

"If you wonder whether you need immediate care, a nurse can help you decide what to do and where to go to get the fastest and most appropriate care," says Kate Wreford-Brown, RN, manager of the Consulting Nurse Service.

One option the nurse will consider is our Urgent Care Centers in Bellevue, Everett, Olympia, Seattle, Silverdale, and Tacoma. All members can use these facilities, even if they don't regularly receive care at a Group Health medical center.

"If our facilities are too far away or not open when you need them, a consulting nurse may direct you to your local emergency department or hospital," says Wreford-Brown.

What happens when you arrive at one of our Urgent Care Centers?

First, check in at the front desk. (If you aren't the patient, ask for assistance if you need help getting the person out of your vehicle.) You may be asked to wear a mask if you have flu symptoms or a contagious illness. Then you'll probably be directed to take a seat in the waiting area.

Next, a nurse will talk to you about why you came. This might be done in a space located just off the waiting area. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature will be measured, and the urgency of your medical condition will be evaluated.

It's important to fully answer the nurse's questions and clearly describe your symptoms and level of pain. Patients with the most serious problems are seen first, so your treatment might start right away. Or if your symptoms are less severe, you'll probably be asked to wait until your name is called.

If you start feeling better or worse while you're waiting, let the check-in person know right away. "The waiting area is watched by nursing staff at all times so that patients with worsening symptoms are seen sooner, if appropriate," says Debbie Hall, RN, director of Urgent Care Services.

How long will you wait?

It's hard to predict wait times because things can change quickly in an Urgent Care Center. For example, ambulances may arrive with patients who need care right away. Typically, it's less than an hour before a nurse will escort you to an exam room and you'll see a doctor. On busy days it can be two hours, and on the busiest days, it might be longer.

The length of time you'll spend receiving care depends on many factors, such as the complexity of your exam, the need for tests and the time required to get the results, and the type of treatment you get.

When member Ginny Fairbairn took a fall in May, she arrived at our Urgent Care Center in Bellevue at a quiet time and only waited half an hour before seeing a doctor. It turned out her leg was broken. But when she went to an Urgent Care Center in 2005, she waited four hours before receiving a few stitches. "There were people walking in continuously with injuries more serious than mine," she says.

"We expect Urgent Care Centers to be like McDonald's, where you get served right away," says member Elisabeth Fredericksen, who recently spent about nine hours in an Urgent Care Center with severe intestinal symptoms. "Like everyone else, I'd like that to be the reality. But it's not. Getting tests and having results evaluated takes time. Once I realized that good care isn't necessarily fast care, waiting became easier. And it helped when nurses came in frequently to update me on what we were waiting for."

What happens after your visit to an Urgent Care Center?

Many patients can go straight home after they've been evaluated and treated in one of our Urgent Care Centers. "Before you leave, a nurse will talk to you about how to take care of yourself at home," says John Vandergrift, MD, urgent care physician at Tacoma Medical Center. "You'll also get an after-visit summary, with written instructions, along with any needed prescriptions. Try to raise any concerns and questions at this point."

If you receive your primary care at a Group Health medical center, your after-visit summary is available online. (You must register for MyGroupHealth for Members on this site, log in, and follow the instructions to upgrade your account.) In addition, your personal physician will be updated via your electronic medical record.

If you need to be admitted to a hospital or other care setting after your visit, we'll coordinate that transition. Some people drive themselves to the facility, while others go by ambulance, depending on their condition. You'll be registered there and asked to sign all the required forms.

At Bellevue Medical Center and Capitol Hill Campus in Seattle, there's another option when you leave the Urgent Care Center. If you need additional observation or treatment — to get a few doses of intravenous antibiotics, for example, or a rehydration treatment — an urgent care physician may admit you to our extended observation unit for up to 24 hours. "You'll get the extra care you need without hospital admission and the risks of exposure to hospital germs," says Hall.

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