What’s the Difference Between the ER and Urgent Care?

I should just start by saying if you think you need to go to the ER, please go- do not read articles on the internet to determine whether or not you should go to the emergency room. This is just for informational purposes.

In a perfect world, you would not need to go to the ER or Urgent Care centers for medical treatment. A lot of doctor’s are booked up as far as appointments go and it is very difficult to get into see someone, so there are times you may need to go to a facility like this if you’re unable to wait until your doctor can see you in their office.

Keep in mind, the Urgent Care or ER are not to be used as primary care doctor’s offices. They are not there to treat your cough that you’ve had for 4 weeks and it’s annoying so you finally went in to get someone to take a look at it on a Monday afternoon. If you’ve had a cough for 4 weeks, more than likely you can wait until your doctor or his nurse practitioner can see you for an appointment in the office. they may recommend that you take some medication over the counter or might even be willing to prescribe you something for that. The only thing you can do is call your doctor and ask, the “worst” thing he/she may say is you have to wait for an appointment before they are able to do anything.

Urgent Care vs Emergency Room

There are a few differences between the emergency room and an urgent care, first would be the price difference. A copay at an urgent care will be a fraction of what the emergency room will charge in most cases. If someone goes to the ER and the insurance company determines that it was not in fact an emergent situation that you were seen for, they may deny payment and stick you with the bill.

The amount of time that you will spend at each facility will differ, but we will just talk about this in a general sense. If you go to a big area hospital, plan on waiting several hours from the time you check in and wait to see the doctor to the time you walk out. I’ve seen and been at a few urgent care centers that can get people in and out in under an hour. Time is a huge factor for me when deciding where to spend it, I would rather not be wasting half of my day at the ER (if I can help it).

Both the urgent care and emergency room allow individuals to walk in and some facilities allow for registering ahead of time which allow you to set up an appointment or wait at home until it’s your turn to be seen. You can visit the local hospital’s website and see if the ER has an online check-in or registration. If it does, it does not apply for all illnesses or injuries so be sure to read the information carefully.

Also, if your insurance company has a hospital that they are affiliated with then be sure to use that network of facilities whether it’s an urgent care or ER visit. This will just ensure that you keep your costs down and aren’t paying extra for the “out of network” services that you’ll be receiving,

Things that you would want to go to the ER for include (but not limited to)

  • Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
  • Recent injury: may have broken or dislocated bone
  • Motor vehicle accident, Fall, Head injury: possible concussion
  • Confusion- sudden (rapidly occurring) change in mood, behavior, memory
  • Seizure or loss of consciousness (passing out)
  • Chest pain, shortness of breath: concern for heart attack
  • Slurred speech: concern for a stroke

Things that you can have addressed at an Urgent Care include (but not limited to) the possibility of having one of the following..

  • Sinus infection, upper respiratory infection, pneumonia
  • Diverticulitis (abdominal pain)/colon infection: nausea/vomiting/diarrhea
  • Rash, hives, poison ivy, and other skin conditions
  • Cuts or burns that may require stitches
  • Back pain, knee pain, etc.
  • Allergic Reaction

Urgent Care facilities vary in the services that they provide. For instance, there are some facilities that will have IV fluids to give you if you’re dehydrated, but others will send you to the ER for a workup if that is what you are needing because they don’t offer those services at their location. Another example is if there isn’t a physician (MD or DO) on site and it’s the PA or NP (physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner) that is seeing patients- they may have you go to the Emergency Room for evaluation if they are unable to do any imaging that night. It’s always best to call ahead and see if there’s any restrictions or what the receptionist would recommend you do with your current symptoms. They will be honest with you if they don’t think they would be of any help to you, which will save you some time and hassle.

I would highly recommend you take the time today to just search for an urgent care center near your home by entering your zip code + urgent care in the google search bar. Find a location close to you in the event that you do need to see someone sooner than your doctor may be able to get you in for an appointment.

There are some things that the Urgent Care offices will do that is similar to that of your primary care office. Certain locations can provide DOT (Department of Transportation) physicals, routine or sports physicals, immunizations, and drug & alcohol testing. These appointments may be things that are scheduled ahead of time.

Another thing to note is the time of day that you may need to see a doctor. Most urgent cares are open for about 12 hours per day, but there are others that run 24/7. If you have an urgent care that was recommended to you or that you’ve been to and liked, but it’s 10 pm on a weeknight and you cannot wait until your doctor’s office opens in the morning, you’ll be referred to the Emergency Room for further evaluation.

If there’s EVER a thought in your mind when you think:

This is the worst headache of my LIFE!

I’m scared to death that I’m not going to make it (due to ____ illness)

I really feel like I’m going to die, I’m in so much pain

OR any thoughts of harming yourself or others

Go to the ER for immediate evaluation and medical treatment

Let me know if you have any further questions in addition to the information provided here. If you want to sing any praises of a local Urgent Care or ER that you’ve visited and received excellent care from- be sure to drop that below and include the city that was in.

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Your Advocate for Health & Hope



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