• Ashley Poynter

ER vs. urgent care: what's the difference



Life happens. Maybe you cut your finger slicing fruit or wake up in the middle of the night with the worst abdominal pain you’ve ever felt. Or maybe you tweak your ankle playing soccer and can’t put weight on it. These — and hundreds of other scenarios — can make it tricky to determine where to go for care. It’s even worse when it happens after hours and your primary care doctor may not be open.


Emergency Room (ER) vs. Urgent Care: What’s the Difference?

The first step is to recognize the difference between “emergency” and “urgent.” Both point to a medical need that needs to be taken care of quickly. The difference lies in the level of care that you may be able to receive at each. Understanding which is best suited to help your needs will help you determine whether to visit an ER vs. urgent care clinic.


Urgent care clinics are meant to be a resource to treat sickness and injuries when your primary care doctor is not available and waiting for an appointment is not feasible. A good rule of thumb is to utilize an urgent care clinic when you’re suffering from something that you would normally address with your primary care doctor.


A hospital emergency room is built to provide medical care for a wide array of illnesses and injuries at any time of day or night. This makes it ideal for critical needs or complex issues that an urgent care clinic may not be equipped to deal with. If you find yourself in a life-threatening (or limb-threatening) situation, you should go to the ER. This includes situations like traumatic injuries or a heart attack.


When to Visit an Urgent Care Clinic

Non-emergency situations that are serious enough to need attention soon are ideal cases for the urgent care clinic. Urgent care centers should also be considered for illness or injury that occurs outside of your primary care doctor’s regular office hours. Most urgent care clinics have weekend hours and are open later into the evening on weeknights. Before you go, be sure to check your local clinic’s business hours.


Consider heading to an urgent care clinic for the following:


  • Minor fractures or sprains

  • Minor cuts and scrapes

  • Vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea

  • Sinus issues or pain

  • Cold symptoms, cough, sore throat

  • Animal bites

  • Lab and blood work, X-rays

  • Stitches

  • Allergies, minor allergic reactions, or rashes



This is just a sampling of some of the scenarios in which it makes sense to visit an urgent care clinic; it’s not comprehensive. The bullets above can be a good guide if you are torn between the ER and an urgent care center.


When to Visit an ER

If you are experiencing an emergency — like a life-threatening illness or condition — go to the emergency room immediately. This may include:


  • Stroke

  • Traumatic injury

  • Severe bleeding

  • Broken bones and dislocated joints

  • Chest pain/heart attack

  • Stroke

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Concussion


Again, this is not a comprehensive list and should not be considered medical advice. If you feel your injury or illness is very severe, visit your local ER or contact emergency medical help. Trust your gut and get the care you need.


Other considerations in choosing an ER vs. urgent care

It may be tempting to automatically head to an ER when you are facing a medical issue. There are several reasons why you may want to reconsider. If you are facing a non-emergency medical issue that needs fast care, an urgent care clinic may be ideal for the following reasons:


  • Convenience: Most (85%) urgent care centers tend to be open seven days a week and have evening and weekend hours — 95% closing after 7.

  • Reasonable cost: The average cost of treatment at an urgent care center is $150, with most centers participating in major insurance plans. The average cost for an ER visit in 2017 was $1,389.

  • Location: Urgent care clinics can be found in many different locations, including commercial shopping areas.

  • Less waiting: Most patients can receive care in under 30 minutes at an urgent care clinic. The wait time at an ER may be one hour or more, depending on the number of people waiting ahead of you.


Decent health care: available 24/7

Decent offers health plans to accommodate all your health care needs. For starters, we offer free primary care. That means you pay $0 to see your doctor. You can choose a standard or virtual plan, meaning you get unlimited in-office or virtual visits with your doctor, respectively. The bottom line: you can see your doctor whenever and as often as you want...for free.


Choosing between ER vs. urgent care is a cinch because our plans cover both. When you are facing a more serious health issue, you can rest easy knowing you won’t face crazy medical bills for getting the care you need.


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