Knowing Which to Visit: ER, Urgent Care or Orthopaedic Walk-in  

By Peter Gibson, Orthopedic Hand Surgeon at NAO

Dr. Peter Gibson, Hand Surgeon
Peter Gibson, MD, fellowship trained surgeon providing hand, wrist and elbow care in the Hand Center at NAO
 Injuries and illnesses occur when you least expect them. Nearby urgent care clinics can give people the medical care they need, usually at a fraction of the cost or time of an emergency room (ER). They provide care for a wide variety of sicknesses, diseases and other conditions. There are also specialty walk-in clinics that treat musculoskeletal injuries such as fractures, sprains and strains from falls and impact accidents. These are orthopaedic walk-in care clinics. Q: What are the benefits of going to an orthopaedic walk-in care clinic versus an urgent care center or emergency room? 

A: At an orthopaedic walk-in care clinic, you can get same-day treatment; on-site X-ray, casting and bracing; and if necessary, surgery, with an orthopaedic specialist who cares for bone, muscle and joint injuries. Emergency rooms and urgent care centers are staffed by doctors and staff who are skilled at identifying and offering immediate treatment for a wide variety of conditions, but they refer patients to specialists for a more definitive diagnosis and follow-up treatment.  

In the event of an orthopaedic injury, patients are typically referred to an orthopaedic specialist right away, so visiting an orthopaedic walk-in care clinic eliminates unnecessary appointments and offers appropriate care immediately. And, since most orthopaedic walk-in clinics are an extension of an orthopaedic practice, the cost is the same as a specialist office visit rather than the high cost of an ER visit. 

Q: What kind of injuries can be treated at an orthopaedic walk-in care clinic? 

A: Ninety-nine percent of new (less than a month old) musculoskeletal injuries are appropriate for a visit to one of these centers. Injuries include: 

  • Ankle, wrist and hand sprains/fractures. 
  • Foot, ankle and leg injuries. 
  • Shoulder injuries (fractures and rotator cuff). 
  • Knee injuries (sprains/ACL tears/meniscus tears). 
  • Back, neck and spine injuries less than one month old. 
  • Back, neck and spine flare-ups from a previous condition. 
  • Worksite or industrial accidents. 
  • Majority of sports injuries. 

Q: When is going to the ER or my primary care provider the better choice? 

A: It is best to go to the ER if: 

  • You have a fracture with the bone visible or with an open wound over the fracture. Most often, these are considered trauma injuries and require immediate surgical intervention.  
  • You have experienced a fainting spell, seizure or neurologic-related signs or symptoms.  
  • Your injury is a deep laceration (cut) with uncontrolled bleeding.  
  • Your hip or shoulder has become dislocated.  

It is best to go to a primary care, general practitioner, urgent care center or a non-orthopaedic specialist for:  

  • Injuries to the eye. 
  • Cold, flu, respiratory and stomach issues.  
  • Medical conditions that are not related to bones, joints, muscles and their supporting structures.  

Q: Who is caring for patients at an orthopaedic walk-in care clinic visit? 

A: Besides being staffed by orthopaedic physicians, many walk-in clinics offering orthopaedic care are staffed by medical providers such as Certified Physician Assistants (PAs) who have completed special training in orthopaedics. Certified Physician Assistants are not “assistants” the way most think of the word. PAs have the extensive training needed to function with physician oversight but do not require direct supervision. They have significant years of experience and specialized training in the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. They must pass a national exam, be state-licensed, recertify every 10 years and complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years. 

Q: Does a surgeon ever see a patient in this type of clinic?  

A: Often, at Urgent Ortho, a Flagstaff-based walk-in care clinic inside the Summit Center, patients are immediately seen by a board certified, fellowship-trained orthopaedic surgeon upon arrival. Being examined by a surgeon allows for the highest level of quality care to be provided to injured patients when they need it most.  

Q: What can I expect from a surgeon or a PA during a visit at this type of clinic?  

A: The patient will be examined to determine what injuries require further diagnostic care and treatment. They may need imaging services (MRI, X-Ray, CT, Ultrasound) to determine the source of the pain. The injury may require casting or splinting, and the patient could go home with crutches and a plan to keep the injury immobilized. Many times, there is a treatment plan developed, which may include surgery if the injury is serious. With all orthopaedic walk-in care clinics, patients with acute injuries receive seamless, comprehensive specialty care, often much sooner than if they were to schedule a visit with a surgeon in a standard clinic.  

Q: Is there a Flagstaff-based walk-in orthopaedic urgent care clinic available? 

A: Yes. Urgent Ortho, a service of Northern Arizona Orthopaedics, is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Urgent Ortho is located at the Summit Center at 1485 N. Turquoise Drive. It is licensed as an Orthopaedic Care Clinic and is a service of Northern Arizona Orthopaedics. It is not considered an Urgent Care Center or ER.  

Q: Do I need to make an appointment at Urgent Ortho? 

A: Appointments are not needed. Patients are seen by a surgeon or a PA on a first-come, first-served basis during business hours. After hours, it is best to call your primary care provider or go to the nearest ER or urgent care center for medical attention. For more information, visit UrgentOrthoFlagstaff.com or call 928-226-2900. FBN