The Difference Between Urgent Care And Primary Care Doctors

Kacey Whitlock


There are so many options for healthcare these days that it can be hard to know where to go when you need care.

What is the difference between urgent care and primary care doctors? How do you know when you should head to the emergency room? And where do the rapidly-growing fields of telehealth and retail clinics come in?

Let’s discuss the differences, pros and cons, and typical pricing between primary care doctors, urgent care doctors, the emergency room, retail clinics, and telehealth.

Primary Care Doctors

What Primary Doctors Do?

Primary care doctors keep an eye on your overall health. They can help monitor changes in your health, track the progress of chronic (long-term) diseases, prescribe medications, give vaccinations, and more.

Most of the time, you will want to see your primary care doctor for any health issues you have. They will have your entire medical record available and will be able to assess your health as a whole rather than trying to fix one current issue without being able to see the entire picture.

When to Go to Your Primary Doctor?

Some of the issues you should visit a primary care doctor for include:

  • Wellness checks, yearly physicals, preventative care. Whether you’re tracking your blood pressure and cholesterol, your child needs a sports physical, or you need a refill on your birth control medication, your primary care doctor is the place to go. If it’s the type of issue you can schedule an appointment for weeks or months in advance, you’ll see your primary care doctor.
  • Monitoring chronic health problems. Chronic health problems include things like diabetes, high blood pressure, and inflammatory bowel disease. Your primary care doctor may also choose to refer you to a specialist for care of chronic health problems.
  • Minor illnesses. For something like a cold, the flu, or a sore throat, you should try to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. The copay for your primary care doctor is usually less than for an urgent care visit, so you should see if your doctor can squeeze you in for these issues.
  • Minor injuries. If you have a minor injury such as a sprained wrist, your primary care doctor should be the first place you go.
  • Vaccinations. While you can get vaccinations in other places, such as your pharmacy, having your primary care doctor give vaccinations allows that information to go into your main health file.
  • Diagnostics and screenings. Your primary care doctor can order blood tests, x-rays, and other tests to diagnose problems.
  • Referral to a specialist. Many insurance plans require you to get a referral from your primary care doctor to see a specialist such as a podiatrist, surgeon, or gastroenterologist.
    Pros and cons of primary care doctors


  • They have your entire medical health record
  • You get appropriate, consistent care
  • The copay is reasonable
  • Preventive care often requires no copay
  • They are better able to see you as a whole


  • May not have same-day appointments when you have an urgent problem
  • Appointments may need to be scheduled a week or more in advance

Primary Doctor Pricing

A typical visit to your primary care physician is your normal copay. Preventive care may be offered with no copay. Other testing may have additional costs. Without insurance, out of pocket costs may range from $50-$150.

Who you’ll see
Medical doctors and physician’s assistants staff primary care doctor’s offices.


Urgent Care Doctors

What Do Urgent Care Doctors Do?

Urgent care doctors are the best place to go if you have an illness or injury and can’t get in to see your primary care doctor. As long as your illness or injury isn’t severe or life-threatening, urgent care clinics can usually help you without an appointment.

When to Go to the Urgent Care?

Urgent care clinics are just the right place for issues that are too urgent to wait for an appointment with your primary care doctor but aren’t severe enough to require the emergency room. Examples of issues you can go to urgent care with include:

  • Cough, cold, or flu
  • Sore throats and sinus infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Ear and eye infections
  • Fever without a rash
  • Scratches and cuts
  • Strains and sprains
  • Minor broken bones
  • Asthma and allergies
  • Vomiting
  • Sports physicals
  • Flu shots
  • Lab tests and x-ray
  • Pros and cons of urgent care clinics


  • You don’t need an appointment
  • Cheaper than the emergency room
  • Usually open evenings and weekend


  • There may be a long wait
  • More expensive than a primary care doctor
  • They don’t have access to your full medical record

Urgent Care Pricing

Visits to an urgent care clinic usually cost more than a trip to a primary care doctor but significantly less than the emergency room. Insurance plans often have a higher copay for urgent care than for a primary care doctor. Without insurance, a trip to an urgent care clinic may cost $119-$330 or more.

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Who you’ll see

While urgent care clinics may have doctors on staff, you will usually see a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner.


Emergency Room

What Happens in the Emergency Room?

As the name implies, emergency rooms are for emergencies. If you suffer a severe or life-threatening illness or injury, you should head to the emergency room. This includes problems that happen in the middle of the night and can’t wait for an urgent care clinic to open.

If there is any chance your condition might require hospitalization, the emergency room is the best place to go since you can be immediately admitted to the hospital.

When to go to Emergency Room?

Chances are, you already know when a condition is severe enough to go to the emergency room. A 2017 study showed that the rate of unnecessary ER visits might be as low as 3.3%, which means that few people go to the emergency room who could get treated elsewhere. Conditions that should be seen in the emergency room include:

  • Severe physical trauma
  • A sudden and severe headache
  • Severe pain, especially abdominal pain
  • Symptoms of a heart attack, including sudden or persistent chest pain, feeling like there’s a heavy weight on your chest, or pain radiating down one or both arms
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations
  • Sudden clumsiness, fainting, or loss of balance for no apparent reason
  • Symptoms of a stroke, including sudden trouble speaking, difficulty understanding speech, or weakness or paralysis (especially on only one side of the body)
  • Sudden, unexplained vision changes such as blurred vision, double vision, or full to partial vision loss
  • Testicular swelling or pain
  • Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting or diarrhea that is severe or persistent
  • Newborn with a fever
  • Head or eye injury
  • Coughing up blood, or blood in vomit or stool
  • Deep cuts
  • Altered mental status including confusion or suicidal thoughts
    Pros and cons of the emergency room


  • May save your life
  • Any problem can be managed
  • It’s easier to be admitted to the hospital
  • Critical problems have short wait times


  • Extremely expensive
  • May be a long wait
  • May not have access to your medical history or prescriptions

Emergency Room Pricing

The emergency room is by far the most expensive option, even with health insurance. Copays may be $200 or more and may not cover everything. Without health insurance, expect to spend several hundred to several thousand dollars for a trip to the emergency room.
Who you’ll see
Medical doctors and nurses with experience treating severe trauma work in emergency departments.


Retail Clinics

What Retail Clinics do?

Large retail and pharmacy chains are starting to offer small clinics inside the stores. These clinics allow you to take care of minor health issues in a convenient setting while you run your typical errands. They tend to be cheaper than urgent care clinics, but they also offer fewer services.

When to go to a Retail Clinic?

Minor conditions like the following can be treated at retail clinics:

  • Sore throat
  • Minor cold or flu symptoms
  • Sty or pink eye
  • UTI, bladder infection, or yeast infection
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Sinus infections
  • Bug bites or stings
  • Minor wounds
  • Suture or staple removal
  • Cholesterol screening
  • Skin conditions like athlete’s foot, shingles, sunburn, or lice
  • Vaccinations
  • Wellness physicals
    Pros and cons of retail clinics


  • Convenient
  • May be the cheapest healthcare option
  • No appointment needed
  • May have weekend or evening availability
  • On-site pharmacy


  • Can only handle minor problems
  • They won’t have access to your entire medical record


Retail clinics are often the cheapest healthcare option and may have low or no copays. For those without insurance, prices are usually posted and easy to see and may range from $45-$129.

Who you’ll see

Nurse practitioners or physician’s assistants usually work at retail clinics.



What is Telehealth?

With the advent of Skype and other methods of video chatting, doctors can often diagnose minor problems and prescribe medications without the need to leave your home. You will set up an appointment time and have a video chat with a doctor or physician’s assistant and describe your symptoms.

When to Use Telehealth Services?

Telehealth allows you to discuss minor health problems with a doctor from your home and have prescriptions sent to your pharmacy. Types of issues telehealth can help you with include:
  • UTIs and bladder infections
  • Yeast infections
  • Minor cough, cold, flu, or sore throat symptoms
  • Sinus infection
  • Pink eye
  • Upset stomach
  • Skin rash
  • Prescription refills
  • Certain labs and testing

Pros and cons of telehealth

  • Basic healthcare without leaving home
  • Convenient
  • Not appropriate for all health problems
  • May not be connected to your full health record

Telehealth Pricing

Telehealth appointments cost anywhere from $50-$100 per call. Bonum Health provides competitive pricing by offering patients a family plan that includes unlimited telehealth doctor visits for only $99 per year. Who you’ll see Doctors or physician’s assistants handle telehealth appointments. Now that you know the difference between urgent care and primary care doctors, you can make the best decision for your health and your budget.

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