It wasn’t that long ago that you had two choices if you needed prompt or emergency medical care—your doctor’s office or a hospital emergency room. But now a third option has come on the scene in a big way—urgent care centers. In fact, there are now more than 7,100 urgent care facilities in the US, and the numbers are growing. Some are owned by hospitals, others by physicians and still others by private corporations (including drugstore and grocery store chains). But they are all a viable alternative to an emergency room or your doctor’s office when a minor accident happens or if an illness develops after normal business hours—and they can save you money and time as well. Smart ways to use urgent care…

• Don’t make it a one-stop center. There’s no such thing as one place where you can get all your medical care. If your doctor’s office is nearby, it’s still the place to go for conditions that do not need to be addressed immediately, such as annual or routine exams, rashes, colds and flu, and prescription refill authorizations. If you’re having symptoms of a heart attack (such as difficulty breathing and/or chest pain)…a head injury or uncontrollable bleeding…symptoms of a stroke (such as numbness or weakness on one side of the body and/or trouble speaking)…intense pain or seizures…or loss of consciousness, you should always get to an emergency room (or, even better, call 911 and let an ambulance take you there). Insider tip: Consider using an urgent care center if your doctor’s office is closed and you have a non-life-threatening condition such as a cut or other superficial wound, moderate burn, sprain or respiratory infection.

• Know what to expect. Most urgent care centers are open 12 to 18 hours a day. Some offer 24-hour services. You do not need an appointment, and the industry average is less than a 30-minute wait for care versus the longer times that are typical of ERs. Most urgent care centers accept health insurance, including Medicare. There is usually a doctor present during all open hours, although in some instances you may be seen or treated by a nurse practitioner or physician assistant. All of these health professionals tend to have good experience with the type of issues they treat in urgent care centers. Insider tip: About 13% of urgent care centers now provide ongoing primary care to local patients. This is especially useful if you live in an area with few primary care doctors or need more available hours to see a physician.

• Check out your local urgent care facility. Unlike hospitals, urgent care facilities are generally not licensed by the state. However, if they are owned by a hospital, they are considered part of the hospital’s licensed operation and are subject to inspection and review by state medical-licensing boards. Otherwise, the only government oversight of urgent care facilities is confirming that the doctors, nurses, physician assistants and technical staff are properly licensed by the state. But you can—and should—find out more. Insider tips: Before you need to use an urgent care center, ask your primary care doctor or specialist to recommend one in your area. Check the website of the Better Business Bureau, BBB.org, for any complaints against a facility. You can even drop in on a facility and ask for a tour and list of services. Also, make sure that the center accepts your insurance. And don’t forget to check with your friends or relatives—word-of-mouth recommendations from people you trust often are good sources of information.