When you get ill or injured and your regular doctor’s office is closed, it’s not always easy to know where to go for care. Emergency rooms and urgent care centers both treat conditions that require immediate attention. But what exactly is the difference between the two and which one should you choose? Read on to find out.
What is the Difference between an Emergency Room and an Urgent Care?
An emergency room is a place where you can go for immediate medical care for a serious injury or illness, while urgent care is a facility designed to treat patients with non-life-threatening conditions.
Hospital emergency rooms are usually located in hospital buildings, although emergency rooms can also be separate from hospitals, such as satellite emergency departments and independent freestanding emergency departments (FSEDs). Urgent care centers are typically found in convenient locations like shopping centers and strip malls.
Emergency rooms and urgent care may sound similar, but there are distinct differences when it comes to their cost, opening hours, and the level of care they provide.
Visiting an emergency room can be two to three times more expensive than going to an urgent care clinic.
Moreover, getting insurance coverage is not always straightforward when visiting an emergency room. If your insurance network considers that your visit to the emergency room was not necessary, they may refuse to cover any of the costs. You should also keep in mind that government insurance like Medicare or Medicaid will only pay out if the emergency room you choose is owned by a hospital.
On the contrary, most urgent care centers accept copays, depending on the insurance networks accepted by the clinic.
Hours and staff
Hospital emergency departments provide medical care around the clock, including on weekends and holidays. Patients are prioritized based on how urgent their case is, which means that waiting times can be long.
Emergency rooms are staffed with physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and nurses trained in delivering emergency care. These facilities also have quick access to experts in cardiology, neurology, orthopedics, and other specialists who can handle the most complex, life-threatening situations such as heart attacks and traumatic injuries.
Although they are conveniently open outside of regular primary care office hours, including evenings and weekends, urgent care clinics are not accessible 24/7 like emergency rooms. On the upside, you can expect much shorter wait times and walk-ins are welcome.
Just like emergency rooms, urgent care offices are typically staffed with physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and nurses, but they have a limited list of conditions treated and don’t accept any emergency conditions.
Severity of health problems
One of the major differences between emergency rooms and urgent care is the severity of the health problems they treat.
If the condition is life-threatening and you require immediate medical attention, you should go to an emergency room.
Urgent care facilities provide expert medical attention for everything from the flu to minor fractures and injuries, but are not appropriate in emergency situations when life is at stake.
Below, we list the most common conditions treated in emergency rooms and urgent care to help you decide where to go when you’re not feeling well.
Conditions Treated at an Emergency Room
Emergency rooms are designed for treating life-threatening situations.
A visit to ER may be necessary if you experience one of the following:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Head trauma
- Severe bleeding
- Loss of vision
- Weakness or numbness on one side
- Slurred speech
- Fainting or change in mental state
- Serious burns
- Head or eye injury
- Broken bones and dislocated joints
- Fever with a rash
- Severe cuts that may require stitches
- Facial lacerations
- Severe cold or flu symptoms
- Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy.
All the above conditions may require immediate or advanced treatments, including surgery, which are only available in a hospital setting.
Emergency rooms may also be more appropriate for infants and toddlers, as some urgent-care providers are not equipped for treating pediatric cases.
When to Call 911
In the following situations, you should call 911 instead of going to the emergency room:
- When a person is choking
- When a person stops breathing
- Head injuries involving confusion, fainting, and loss of consciousness
- An injury to the spine or neck, especially accompanied by the inability to move or loss of feeling
- Lightning strike or electric shock
- Severe burns
- Severe chest pressure or pain
- Seizures lasting 3-5 minutes.
Conditions Treated at an Urgent Care
Urgent care centers are walk-in clinics intended for treating basic illnesses and injuries that need to be attended to right away, but are not considered true emergencies.
At urgent care centers, you can get help if you experience one of the following:
- Fever without a rash
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Abdominal pain
- Wheezing or shortness of breath
- Cough or sore throat
- Cold and flu symptoms
- Minor allergic reactions
- Mild asthma
- Minor headaches
- Ear or sinus pain
- Back pain
- Bumps, cuts, and scrapes
- Small cuts that may require stitches
- Sprains and strains
- Minor fractures
- Animal bites
- Foreign objects in the eyes or nose
- Rashes and minor burns
- Burning with urination
- Eye irritation, swelling, or pain.
Physicians at urgent care can prescribe medications, in addition to being equipped to suture wounds and perform basic lab and imaging tests, such as blood work, X-rays, and CT scans, which can help them establish diagnoses and develop treatment plans. Most urgent care facilities also offer vaccinations.
It is important to keep in mind that an urgent care clinic shouldn’t be used as a substitute for visiting your primary care physician. Before going to an urgent care clinic, you may want to contact your regular doctor’s office in case you are able to get a same-day appointment. Unlike urgent care, your doctor is familiar with your health history, knows what treatments have worked best for you in the past, and will be able to take into consideration any other medical conditions you suffer from.