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How to get an urgent care appointment when you’re traveling

5 minute read
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Getting sick on vacation is the worst. Urgent care centers are here to help, wherever you go.

Kate Rockwood

By Kate Rockwood

Getting sick on vacation isn’t fun, but it happens to the best of us. You pick up a nasty stomach bug, get a sinus infection or sprain your wrist after a rousing game of mini golf. While not life-threatening, these kinds of illnesses and injuries are what urgent care centers were created to address.

Urgent care can be especially useful when you’re away from home and can’t see your regular doctor. Or if you come down with something that needs treatment, but it’s not so severe that you need a hospital visit. Urgent care centers can also handle more serious illnesses and injuries — and they have more equipment such as X-ray machines — than the walk-in clinics in many drugstore chains.

“Urgent care clinics are ideal for concerns that should be addressed quickly but are not emergencies,” says Paul Coyne, DNP. He’s the vice president of clinical practice and chief nursing informatics officer at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

What is urgent care and when should you use it?

Urgent care centers are for non-emergency issues that still need quick attention. They’re not meant for life-threatening issues or serious injuries that can’t wait. For example, breaking your toe could be a reason to visit an urgent care center. Cutting off part of your finger requires a trip to the emergency department.

Some health issues that can be handled via urgent care include:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • A sprain
  • A urinary tract infection (UTI)
  • A minor broken bone
  • Stitches for a small cut

Many urgent care centers can take X-rays and also send out lab tests to help diagnose your illness. You can also get a prescription for medication if the doctor determines you need it.

Urgent care centers are often staffed by physician assistants, nurses and nurse practitioners. Some have doctors, internists or family medicine practitioners on staff as well, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But some symptoms are always an emergency, Coyne says. You should immediately call 911 or go to an emergency department if you experience:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sudden changes in mental status
  • Slurred speech
  • Uncontrollable bleeding

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How to get an appointment at a nearby urgent care center

The simplest way to find an urgent care center is to search online for nearby locations. Urgent care centers are mostly similar, but it’s still worth calling ahead or checking their website. That way, you can make sure they accept your insurance and offer the services you need.

Almost all urgent care centers offer walk-in service, meaning you don’t need an appointment. Instead, you’ll likely be seen on a first-come, first-served basis. The wait time is typically between 15 and 30 minutes, Coyne says. Though it could take longer on busy days.

If you’re in a touristy town during a holiday weekend, for example, you might expect to wait longer. But your wait is still likely much shorter than what you’d face at an emergency department. Many urgent care centers list their current wait times on their websites or apps. 

You can also make an urgent care appointment for a specific time. Registering online ahead of your visit will save time once you arrive. Be sure to bring your ID and insurance card to the appointment.

When to book a virtual urgent care appointment

Going to an urgent care center in person isn’t your only option. You can also see a doctor online by signing up for a virtual urgent care appointment. That could be especially useful if you don’t have access to a car where you’re vacationing. Or maybe you’re staying in a remote location that’s not close to a town.

You can also make an appointment for a specific time. Bonus: You avoid sitting in a waiting room if you’re not feeling well. Optum’s virtual care service makes it easy to schedule a same-day online appointment with a licensed doctor or nurse practitioner. 

“When you’re traveling and don’t know where to go or can’t get there, it’s a great option,” says Ajfar Sherif, MD. Dr. Sherif is medical director of Optum Virtual Urgent Care.

Many of the same ailments that would send you to an urgent care center in person can also be handled at a virtual appointment. They include flu symptoms, sinus infections and UTIs, Dr. Sherif says. Other common issues that can come up when you’re traveling include:

  • Sunburn
  • Poison ivy
  • Skin rashes
  • Skin infections
  • Bug bites

“Virtual care is a great diagnostic tool that’s in the pocket of every patient in the U.S.,” Dr. Sherif says. “At Optum, all of our virtual urgent care providers have in-person urgent care or ER experience.”

Need a doctor on vacation? Book a virtual care appointment at Optum from wherever you are.

What happens at a virtual care appointment?

These virtual appointments allow you to talk to a medical provider over video chat. You can use a laptop, tablet or phone screen. The doctor will offer you advice and can prescribe medications such as antibiotics if needed, Dr. Sherif says.

Depending on what the doctor learns, you might have to go to an in-person facility for further evaluation. If you’ve had a long-term headache, for example, the doctor might need to perform additional testing to figure out the cause.

Of course, not all ailments can be handled virtually. “For the most part, anything injury-based will need to be seen in person,” Dr. Sherif says.

But if you’re facing something that can be addressed virtually, getting care from the comfort of your hotel room is a nice option. Just be sure you have a reliable internet connection before you make the appointment.

Whether you see a medical provider in person or virtually, an urgent care visit can set your mind at ease or stop a potentially serious issue from getting worse. All of which means you can get back to enjoying your trip more quickly.

Additional source
Difference between urgent care and ER: Mayo Clinic (2020). “Emergency vs. Urgent Care: What's the difference?”