Sep 09, 2021

Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room: What's the Difference?

You wake up in the middle of the night with deep, sharp pains in your abdomen. Your child tumbles while running outside and can no longer put weight on their ankle. You're making dinner and accidentally burn your arm pretty bad on the stove. 

Accidents happen every day, so when you are faced with an illness or injury unexpectedly, where should you go: an Urgent Care Center or the Emergency Room (ER)? The answer is not always cut and dry due to confusion that often comes from hearing "emergency" and "urgent," as they both imply a medical need that demands attention quickly.

We put together this guide to help you know the difference between urgent care and emergency care and where to seek treatment when you need it. 

What is an Urgent Care Center?

Urgent care centers give people access to quality healthcare when their primary care doctor's offices are closed (nights, weekends, holidays, etc.). They handle non-life-threatening situations (we'll touch on that a little later), and many have nurses and doctors on staff with access to x-rays and labs at the center. 

Benefits of an Urgent Care Center

  • Lower costs/co-pays than ER 

  • Shorter wait times

  • A bridge between ER and primary care doctor

  • Treats minor illnesses, injuries, and general medical conditions that don't require a physician's care or imaging technology.

  • Care available same-day, often without an appointment

  • Later evening, weekend, and holiday hours 

  • Some prescriptions available 

What is an Emergency Room?

Emergency rooms are usually attached to hospitals and are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They can handle trauma, x-rays, surgical procedures, and other medical situations, so they are meant for treating life-threatening emergencies. 

Benefits of an Emergency Room

  • 24/7 service

  • Licensed ER physicians and ICU and ER trained RNs

  • Extensive range of prescription medications

  • Complete in-house lab services

  • Qualified x-ray technologists

  • Advanced diagnostic imaging

  • Hospital on-site 

  • Able to become specialty certified by joint commission for things like stroke, pediatrics, and trauma. 

When Should I Go To an Urgent Care Center?

Urgent care centers can handle various medical problems that need to be treated immediately, but are not considered true emergencies. Illness, injury, and symptoms that can be evaluated and treated at an urgent care clinic include:

  • Fever without a rash

  • Ear Infection

  • Vomiting or persistent diarrhea

  • Abdominal pain

  • Wheezing or shortness of breath

  • Dehydration

  • Strep Throat

  • Urinary Tract Infections (UTI)

  • Bronchitis and pneumonia

  • Moderate flu-like symptoms

  • Mild to moderate Asthma

  • Sprains and strains

  • Eye irritation and redness

  • Fractures

  • Minor cuts that may require stitches

Suppose your symptoms come on slowly, or you already know the diagnosis (i.e., recurrent UTIs). In that case, you should try calling your primary physician's office to see if they have any same-day appointments available. 

When Should I Go To The Emergency Room?

Experiencing an emergency condition can permanently impair or endanger your life. Some examples of conditions and symptoms that should be seen in the emergency room are:

  • Disorientation or difficulty speaking

  • Sudden dizziness or loss of coordination

  • Seizure or loss of consciousness

  • Stroke symptoms (vision loss, sudden numbness, weakness, slurred speech, or confusion)

  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings

  • Shortness of breath or severe asthma attack

  • Head injury

  • Gunshot and knife wounds

  • Major trauma to the back, neck, or head

  • Severe cuts or burns

  • Heart attack/chest pain/chest pressure

  • Overdose

  • Uncontrolled bleeding

  • Coughing or vomiting blood

  • Anaphylaxis/Severe allergic reactions

You should never attempt to drive yourself to the hospital if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms. Getting to the ER as quickly as possible is important, but getting there safely is even more critical. If you or someone around you is experiencing what seems to be a life-threatening medical condition, dial 911 immediately. 

Final Thoughts

The average emergency room in America is continuously crowded. As a result, patients are faced with longer wait times to be seen and higher ER bills. 

Many people go directly to the ER because they don't know that Urgent Care can see them for minor to moderate illnesses and injuries that need to be treated quickly. Knowing the difference and where to go can significantly help reduce the number of people in the ER wait rooms, help you obtain the right treatment that you need when you need it, depending on the condition you have, as well ultimately improve the quality of healthcare overall.

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