Urgent Care or Emergency Room? Which One is Right for you?

Kacey Whitlock

Author

Deciding Between the Emergency Room and Urgent Care Clinic

At one point or another, every person has a medical issue that requires immediate attention. In those moments, it is important to know where to go to get the best care in a quick and timely manner. However, you also must anticipate the costs associated with any medical tests or procedures, blood work, or hospital admission. These factors mean it is important to know the difference between an emergency room and urgent care clinic and the services each one offers.

Each of these facility types has its own advantages and disadvantages for patients. Understanding the difference between an emergency room and urgent care clinic is the key to getting the care you need quickly and affordably. This article will go over the basic differences between an emergency room and urgent care facility, the intended purpose of each, and then when to go to each.

What Is an Emergency Room?

An emergency room, as the name suggests, is a facility designed to treat acute illnesses, injuries, and other traumas. It is staffed with personnel trained to deal with emergency issues. These situations can either endanger the lives of patients or leave them at serious risk for an impaired quality of life if they are not immediately treated.

An acute illness is defined as an illness whose appearance is sudden and of short duration; it is often life-threatening if left untreated. A classic example of an acute illness is a heart attack. An emergency trauma might be something like a serious car accident.

Because these facilities are specifically for potentially life-threatening illnesses and injuries, emergency rooms require no appointment or call-ahead. Patients can come to an emergency room as soon as they decide to seek treatment, either by arriving on their own or by contacting an ambulance.

Almost all emergency rooms are open 24 hours a day and seven days a week, even during holidays, and most are part of a larger hospital complex. This means that if the medical personnel deems further testing or monitoring is necessary, patients can be admitted to a separate part of the hospital. Because of the important role emergency rooms play in communities, most cities post signs showing how to quickly get to them.

What Is an Urgent Care Clinic?

Urgent care clinics are designed to give patients access to care for illnesses and injuries that need urgent attention but are not life-threatening. Urgent care clinics are intended to fill the gap left by other medical facilities, which is why they are usually open after primary care physicians’ offices have closed and require no appointment or call-ahead.

Often, urgent care clinics are open on weekends and holidays. Clinics staff a variety of healthcare professionals, from doctors to registered nurses to other qualified personnel. They have a variety of equipment to deal with illnesses or injuries that need to be immediately treated or assessed but are not otherwise life-threatening.

Although urgent care clinics are not intended to treat dangerous conditions, they can stabilize patients for transport to emergency rooms if the on-call professionals deem it necessary.

For example, an urgent care clinic will likely recommend that a patient experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack be transferred to an emergency room as a precaution. Because they allow patients to come at-will, however, they can provide treatment that should or could not wait until normal doctors’ office hours. In addition to this, urgent care clinics take much of the strain from emergency rooms by providing care for patients whose conditions are not strictly life-threatening or immediately dangerous.

If you are experiencing an illness or injury that could be life-threatening or seriously damaging to your health if left untreated for more than a short time, you will want to visit an emergency room. Emergency rooms have the staff and resources to treat conditions like heart attacks, strokes, seizures, compound fractures, fevers in newborns, moderate or severe burn injuries, heavy or uncontrollable bleeding, poisoning, concussions and other serious head injuries, issues related to pregnancy, severe chest and abdominal pain, serious injury to the neck or back, difficulty breathing, and suicidal attempts or feelings. These are all situations that could lead to death or severe impairment if not treated immediately. For these kinds of conditions, most urgent care clinics will simply refer patients to the local emergency room because they lack the capacity to adequately treat them. If you are not completely sure what an emergency room is intended for or when to go to an emergency room, the question of immediate danger is a good rule of thumb.

When to Go to Urgent Care?

On the other hand, if you are experiencing an illness or injury that does not put your life in danger but still requires immediate treatments, it may be better to visit an urgent care clinic.

These conditions include things like eye problems, asthma attacks, cuts that require stitches, fevers, minor fractures and broken bones, influenza, moderate back pain, a fall or minor vehicle accident, a painful sore throat, infections and rashes, sprains, vomiting and diarrhea, urinary tract infections, dehydration, or even needing an X-ray or lab test. While the above are or can be serious conditions, they do not usually require a visit to an emergency room to be rectified.

Some people are tempted to visit an emergency room when an urgent care clinic would suffice, while others are afraid to go to an emergency room for fear of wasting physicians’ time. The best rule of thumb is to try to accurately gauge how serious an illness or injury seems to be. If there is a chance that a condition is life-threatening, dial 911 or go to an emergency room without delay.

However, if you are reasonably certain that the condition you are experiencing is not life-threatening or potentially debilitating, it is probably best for you to visit an urgent care clinic.

For many people, urgent care clinics can provide a cheaper option than emergency rooms, which is something to keep in mind if an issue is not a matter of life and death.

However, there are other situations in which you should go to urgent care. For some people, emergency rooms are not necessarily an option because of time, finances, or insurance issues. For some, they might be an option only in the direst of circumstances. People in these situations might opt to go to an urgent care facility unless there is an absolute certainty that they are in a severe medical emergency.

For example, if you are frequently on the road because of your job or for other reasons or have an especially busy schedule, you may opt for urgent care facilities for several reasons. You may not be in one place long enough to have access to a regular doctor who can assess whether an illness or injury is a chronic or emergency condition.

If you travel frequently, you may also find yourself simply too busy or over-scheduled to make the time for a doctor’s appointment. Someone in a situation like this might make it a priority to use an urgent care facility rather than a regular doctor since their specific needs are not emergencies. This can be a good alternative since urgent care facilities can offer swift and efficient care without a prior appointment.

People who do not have insurance also might choose an urgent care facility. If you do not qualify for insurance or have temporarily lost your coverage because of your employment situation, urgent care may be a better choice for you for nonemergency medical needs.

Urgent care clinics frequently carry lower out-of-pocket costs for those without insurance than emergency rooms, so patients paying for the entirety of their medical bills can receive care without paying huge sums of money. Doctors at urgent care clinics can also write prescriptions, which is especially helpful for uninsured or underinsured persons who need regular medication to treat chronic medical problems, like allergies, migraines, or mental conditions.

Another good example of when to go to an urgent care is if you have a history of chronic medical issues but also frequently avoid going to the doctor because of tight finances. Many people cannot afford frequent doctor visits but also cannot justify going to an emergency room each time they experience a recurrence of a chronic medical issue, such as a migraine. People in these situations may find that their best option to get the affordable treatment they need is at an urgent care facility.

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