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Urgent Care Centers and Medical Treatment for Children: FAQ’s

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Urgent care centers have proliferated in the last several years, offering parents the opportunity to access on-demand medical care for their children if the pediatrician’s office does not have an appointment available for several days and the child does not require emergency treatment. However, parents often struggle with questions about urgent care centers and these situations can be very stressful when your child is sick or injured. Since there are no absolute answers available, let’s take a look at some of the available guidance and research as it relates to pediatric urgent care.

Should I Take my Child to Urgent Care or the Emergency Room?

The most difficult question facing parents is often: “When should I take my child to an urgent care center and when should I go directly to the emergency room?” Pediatricians have weighed-in on this topic to assist parents in these situations. For example, Johns Hopkins has offered guidance from a pediatrician’s perspective. According to Therese Canares, M.D., Johns Hopkins Children’s Center emergency physician, it is best to seek help for your child at an ER if:

  • The child is younger than 2 months old and has a fever: a temperature of 100.4º F or higher
  • The child has symptoms of dehydration: dry mouth/lips, no urination for 12 hours or more, confusion, or lethargy
  • The child has signs of respiratory distress: rapid breathing, difficulty breathing, gasping for air
  • The child may have a broken bone: possible swelling, unevenness, or bumps at or near the site
  • The child hit their head and may have lost consciousness for several seconds
  • The child had a seizure
  • The child has a serious laceration (open cut) on their face

On the other hand, it may be safe and effective to bring your child to an urgent care facility if any of the following circumstance apply:

  • The child has cold or flu symptoms and a fever
  • The child may have an ear infection: ear hurts, pulling on the ears, fluid coming from the ear
  • The child has a sore throat and may have a streptococcal (strep) infection
  • The child may have pink eye (infectious conjunctivitis): red eyes, eye inflammation, and/or discharge
  • The child has vomiting or diarrhea without blood in the stool, belly pain, or signs of dehydration

Can an Urgent Care Doctor Handle my Child’s Condition?

A study published in the Rhode Island Medical Journal sought to understand the challenges facing urgent care center providers as it relates to pediatric medical care. The research, entitled “Treating Children at Urgent Care Centers: A Qualitative Study to Determine How Providers Perceive Managing Pediatric Patients,” asked study participants to answer a series of questions in order to identify prominent themes. Researchers found that urgent care physicians and providers may be unprepared to handle acutely ill infants and child brain injuries.

There were several scenarios that healthcare providers at urgent care centers reported being uncomfortable with. First, many said they had more difficulty managing diagnosis and treatment for acutely ill infants. They discussed having trouble with the fact that these patients cannot talk or provide information about symptoms, pain, medical history, etc. Without extensive training in pediatrics, an urgent care doctor may simply lack the experience necessary to accurately diagnose or treat an infant.

Medical professionals who participated in the study also indicated the challenges of treating children who may have minor traumatic brain injuries. They discussed fears of missing an intracranial hemorrhage (ICH) or concussion. Many also said they transferred a child to an emergency department as soon as they observed signs of confusion, slowed speech, or abnormal mental status. Notably, some urgent care centers lack the necessary tools to diagnose head injuries, such as computed tomography (CT) scans.

What if my Child was Harmed at an Urgent Care Facility?

It is important to note that there is significant variability in training among urgent care center doctors and medical professionals. Many do not have formal training in pediatrics, which may lead to more errors in infant and child medical care. Also, urgent care centers across the United States are not subject to mandatory accreditation or universal guidelines as it relates to their services. As a result, some walk-in clinics provide extensive diagnostic tests and treatment services, while others offer far less. Your child may be able to have an X-ray, get lab tests done on the spot, or receive intravenous medication at an urgent care center. Or, they may need to be transferred to an emergency department to receive this level of care.

The most important thing to know is that urgent care centers are not all the same. However, doctors and medical professionals in all clinical settings are required to provide an acceptable standard of care. If they fail to do so and your child suffers complications, you have the right to pursue legal action. To discuss your child’s specific urgent care injury, contact our New Jersey pediatric malpractice attorneys for a free consultation. Simply call (866)-708-8617 or contact us online today.

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