Should You Go to the ER or Urgent Care? How to Decide

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An accident or the sudden need for medical attention can interrupt your day without warning. Worrying symptoms can appear at times when your doctor isn’t available. These situations are stressful and it’s hard to think when you’re under stress. But you need to decide where to go to get medical care for yourself or a loved one. Understanding the levels of acute medical care before you need it can help you focus and get the appropriate help quickly.

You have plenty of options for acute medical care.

Most everyone is familiar with the traditional hospital ER. But there are other options for immediate medical needs. One trend on the increase is retail health clinics in your local pharmacy. Another choice is an urgent care center, which is a cross between an ER and a clinic. You’ll see a doctor at either an ER or an urgent care center. But each level excels at meeting different healthcare needs.

Go to the ER if your situation is a true emergency.

A hospital ER—or dialing 911—is the only place to go for life-threatening symptoms or situations: 

  • Heart attack symptoms including chest pain, trouble breathing, and clammy skin

  • Stroke symptoms including trouble speaking or understanding speech, or sudden weakness in the face, arm or leg

  • Severe trauma including head injury

  • Severe bleeding, or bleeding that doesn’t stop with pressure after about five minutes

  • Loss of consciousness

Don’t go to either an urgent care center or a clinic for these conditions. They will send you to the ER or call 911 for you. If you are in doubt, err on the safe side and head to the nearest hospital.

Consider an urgent care center for situations that are not life threatening.

Urgent care centers can handle a variety of situations that are not life threatening:

  • Animal bites

  • Broken bones

  • Coughs, sore throats, high fevers, and flu

  • Cuts that require stitches

  • Earaches and sinus pain

  • Eye problems

  • Minor burns

  • Minor headaches or breathing problems

  • Rashes and skin problems

  • Sports injuries

  • Urinary tract infections

  • Vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach or belly pain

These centers can take X-rays and perform minor procedures, such as removing a foreign object from the eye or stitching a cut. Retail health clinics can also care for many of these situations. But they aren’t equipped to handle broken bones, X-rays or stitching cuts and other wounds. Think of a retail clinic as a doctor’s office that takes walk-ins and is open extended hours.

You will spend less time in an urgent care center.

It’s true an ER can handle all the same things an urgent care center can. But you will spend significantly more time waiting and receiving treatment in an ER. ERs have a five-tier triage system to make sure the sickest patients get care immediately. The median wait time to see a doctor in a U.S. ER is about 30 minutes. And the less urgent your situation, the longer you’ll likely wait. The median treatment time is 90 minutes.

In contrast, most urgent care centers have patients in and out the door in 60 minutes or less. This includes wait time and treatment time.

You will spend less money in an urgent care center.

Time isn’t the only thing you’ll save by choosing an urgent care center. The average cost of an ER visit is about $1,300 to $1,400. But many urgent care visits cost an average of $150.

If you have insurance, you’ll see a difference in your copay and other out-of-pocket expenses. Your copay at an urgent care center will likely be higher than seeing your doctor, but it’s likely to be a fraction of the copay for an ER visit. Insurance plans may have other restrictions for ER visits. You may need to meet a deductible or pay co-insurance. Know what your plan covers before an emergency happens.

You will get quality care at an urgent care center.

The doctors and nurses who staff urgent care centers are dedicated medical providers. In fact, 97% of urgent care staff work full time at the center. And 70% of urgent care doctors are board certified in either family medicine or emergency medicine. An added benefit is these doctors are available to see you without an appointment. Most centers are open an average of 13 hours per day, seven days a week. 

It’s a good idea to program the name and location of your preferred urgent care and hospital ER in your phone so you are prepared in case of emergency. You may also want to post the same information on your refrigerator or other common area of your house.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 24
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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