Urgent care vs emergency room: Where to go for your medical emergency

Some medical issues are clear emergencies and require a call to 911 – emergencies such as severe chest pain, seizures, and injuries to the head, neck or spine. But what about less-severe medical problems that still require care sooner than later? In those cases, are you better off heading to the emergency room (ER) or visiting an urgent care center?

Knowing when to use each service can save you valuable time and stress when faced with a medical emergency. More importantly, knowing when you need the ER can save your life and reduce the chance of long-term injury. Here’s what you need to understand about urgent and emergency care.

What is the difference between urgent care and the emergency room?

Emergency rooms, also called emergency departments (ED), are typically located within a hospital setting. There, specially trained emergency medicine physicians have everything they need to handle even the most severe medical issues.

Urgent care centers (also called immediate care centers) bridge the gap between primary care and emergency care. When your primary care physician (PCP) is not available, urgent care is an excellent option for minor medical issues. Urgent care doctors use advanced imaging, have on-site lab capabilities and can write prescriptions.

When to go to the emergency room

If there is even a remote chance that your medical issue could lead to death, disability or disfigurement, it is a true emergency requiring immediate attention. Depending on the nature of your issue, a medical team may transport you to the ER (if you call 911) or you may travel there yourself.

Conditions and symptoms requiring a trip to the ER include:

  • Coughing or throwing up blood
  • Deep wound, heavy bleeding or possible broken bone
  • Drug or alcohol overdose
  • High fever that does not get better with medicine or coincides with a headache and stiff neck
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Sharp pain in the lower abdomen
  • Vomiting or diarrhea lasting more than two days or causing signs of dehydration

When to go to an urgent care center

Visit an urgent care center for medical issues you would typically address with your PCP that can’t wait. If the urgent care provider believes a higher level of care is necessary, he or she will get you to the ER.

According to the National Institutes of Health, urgent care centers can help you with:

  • Common illnesses, including severe colds, flu, low-grade fevers, sore throats, earaches and minor rashes
  • Minor injuries, such as minor cuts and burns, sprains, back pain and minor eye injuries

Urgent care should not replace your PCP. These centers are a convenient option when your physician is unavailable to offer care as quickly as you need it.

Other factors to consider with emergency care

There are additional differences between the ER and urgent care that include:

Cost of care

Treatment in an emergency department can cost two to three times more than the same care in your provider's office. But a federal mandate requires emergency departments to care for patients regardless of their ability to pay.

The cost for urgent care varies by center and depends on your medical issue. Your copay for urgent care may be higher than when you see your primary care physician but is typically much less than the copay for an ER visit.

Availability of services

Emergency departments prepare for every type of emergency and typically offer advanced equipment and physicians with specialized training in emergency medicine. The ER is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Urgent care centers can take X-rays and perform minor procedures, but they aren’t always equipped to handle severe fractures or wounds. Most centers are open seven days a week, but for limited hours each day.

Wait time

Choosing the right level of care for your medical issue can greatly impact the amount of time you wait to be seen. ER doctors see patients according to how sick or injured they are, regardless of when they arrive. That system works well for true emergencies, but for non-urgent issues, you might wait quite a while to be seen.

The wait at urgent care centers varies by location. Some centers accept walk-ins and physicians see patients in the order they arrive. Others require an appointment or provide an option to “save your spot” when you are on the way. According to the Urgent Care Association, nearly 94% of patients at urgent care centers wait less than 30 minutes to see a physician.

UCLA Health offers Emergency Department Locations and Immediate Care Locations to help you with medical issues. To learn more about what is offered at each level of care, speak to your primary care provider.


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