When an urgent medical need arises, you need the fastest high-quality care provider you can find. However, in times of crisis, it can be tough to decide whether you should go to an urgent care facility, walk-in clinic, or emergency room. It’s important to know the advantages and disadvantages of each.

What are the differences between an Urgent Care and an Emergency Room?

Urgent care, also known as a walk-in clinic or urgent medical care center, is an excellent option for those with minor illnesses and injuries. It’s usually less expensive than visiting an emergency room and patients can often be seen more quickly than they would at their primary care physician’s office. An urgent care facility is typically not equipped to handle emergencies, but offers non-emergency medical services (minor cuts, dislocating a shoulder) for immediate treatment.

Emergency rooms see more serious cases such as heart attacks, gunshot wounds, and burns so it is important to call 911 if you believe that your condition warrants immediate attention. An emergency room can handle all types of emergencies (heart attack, stroke, food poisoning), provides diagnostic services (ruptured appendix), and possibly surgical procedures (cholecystectomy or appendectomy).

An emergency room and urgent care facility may be owned and operated independently, or by the same corporation. It may be easier to get in to see an urgent care doctor when the ER is crowded.

If you are in need of immediate medical attention, your decision should be based on how quickly you need that treatment. If you are experiencing a true emergency, go directly to an emergency room.

Urgent Care Advantages & Disadvantages

  • Urgent care facilities are open whenever you need them, all day, every day. Some are open 24/7. When you have an urgent medical need–whether it’s the middle of the night or holiday–you can go to an urgent care facility and be seen immediately.
  • An urgent care provider is typically larger and offers extended hours of operation than a traditional doctor’s office. Therefore, there is usually less of a wait to see a provider.
  • Because urgent care facilities tend to be larger and offer extended hours of operation (and because they treat non-urgent medical needs), there are more providers on staff, which means that if one is busy, another is likely available.
  • Urgent care facilities often have more specialists on staff than traditional physician practices. This can be helpful in situations where quick treatment for a specific condition is necessary (i.e., sports medicine, burns).
  • Urgent care facilities are usually located near you and, as such, may enable you to go to an urgent care facility if you don’t have access to a physician or hospital.
  • Urgent care facilities often operate with an “urgent care only” policy. This means that whatever your initial complaint is–and whatever problem it may be caused by–only urgent medical needs will be treated at the facility and nothing else (no diagnosis of a condition, for example).

Emergency Room Advantages & Disadvantages

  • An emergency room can handle any kind of urgent medical need (heart attack, stroke, food poisoning).
  • A doctor at an emergency room can perform diagnostic tests and evaluate and treat you for a range of problems that an urgent care physician might not be able to diagnose or treat (ruptured appendix, cut requiring stitches).
  • Doctors in an emergency room offer constant availability. In situations where your condition requires immediate treatment, many insurance plans will cover the cost of going to the ER vs. going to urgent care facility.
  • Emergency rooms are typically located near you.
  • Because emergency rooms often can handle more than just urgent medical needs, if your initial complaint is not an urgent medical need (i.e., sore throat), the physician will likely order or x-ray/ultrasound to determine whether or not you have an emergency room diagnosis.

You should choose an urgent care facility or walk-in clinic instead of an emergency room if:

  • You need immediate attention, but the problem is not an urgent medical need (i.e., sore throat, stomachache).
  • It’s an emergency medical need, but not one where there is immediate danger to your health (abdominal pain does not require immediate treatment or high level of follow-up).
  • You have a specific condition that requires quick treatment from a specialist available at the facility (i.e., sports medicine, burns).

You should go to the nearest emergency room ASAP if:

  • You have an urgent or potentially life-threatening medical need (i.e., heart attack, stroke, food poisoning).
  • You have a serious condition (i.e., appendicitis, pneumonia) and the emergency room requires immediate treatment or you are at immediate risk to your health (i.e., you collapsed and need oxygen by IV).
  • You were admitted to the hospital and need follow-up care (childbirth, broken arm).
  • You or someone you know is unconscious or cannot communicate about their condition (i.e., face down in pool).
  • You are injured or injured someone else (i.e., accident at work), and you need immediate medical attention.
  • You need to be seen by a doctor, but the doctor is not available at the nearest urgent care facility and has no backup (i.e., after-hours clinic).
  • You need to be seen by a doctor but the facility is not open, or you cannot easily get to it (i.e., the office is snowed in).
  • You do not have private insurance and do not want to pay out of pocket for care (obviously, this is more common the less insurance coverage the patient has).

Be sure to ask about an urgent care facility’s emergency room policy before going there.

If you are experiencing a true medical emergency, do not delay–dial 911 for immediate assistance.

Use the Urgently Health app to help you find an urgent care facility, walk-in clinic, or emergency room near you!