Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room

Urgent care centers can be a bit confusing. They fall someplace between going to the emergency room and making an appointment with your primary care physician. So, the question many may have is, why not just go to the emergency room or the doctor? Why is the purpose of urgent care?

What is Urgent Care?

The urgent care concept is built around minor, non-life-threatening emergencies and situations that need immediate attention. It’s a place you can go for treatment quickly and, usually, without an appointment. You might also use urgent care for something you would normally take to your primary care doctor, but you can’t get an appointment. 

In many ways, urgent care clients serve as the front line for certain kinds of medical emergencies. The medical staff at the urgent care center can quickly evaluate the problem and provide treatment. From there, they can make a recommendation for further care. In life-threatening situations, they would pass you on to the emergency room. Otherwise, they may recommend you follow up with your primary care doctor. 

Urgent care centers can do testing either in-house or that they send to a lab. They can often take x-rays and will do examinations just like a doctor’s office. They can send prescriptions to your pharmacy, as well, and consult with or refer you to a specialist if necessary. 

Often, the physicians or practitioners at urgent care specialize in family medicine, internal medicine, or emergency medicine. That makes them uniquely qualified to handle most situations.

When Would You Go to Urgent Care? 

Urgent care offers basic medical services for minor illnesses and injuries. Some examples of problems you take to urgent care include:

  • Stomach viruses
  • Infections
  • Sprains
  • Allergies
  • Physicals
  • Minor cuts
  • Mild breathing problems
  • X-rays
  • Eye irritation
  • Minor fractures
  • Moderate pain

You might go to urgent care during the off hours for a primary doctor, as well, or if you can’t get a timely appointment. 

When Would You Not Go to Urgent Care?

There are some emergencies that an ER is better equipped to handle. An emergency that would not go to urgent care would be life-threatening or lead to permanent impairment. Some examples of emergencies that should go to the ER include:

  • A compound fracture — the bone is protruding through the skin
  • Poisoning
  • Head injury
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Heart attack symptoms such as chest pain
  • Stroke symptoms such as one-sided paralysis or slurred speech
  • Mental health emergencies such as suicidal thoughts or a psychic break
  • Serious burns
  • Severe stomach pain
  • Fever in a newborn
  • Problems related to a pregnancy

These are situations better served in the emergency room or by calling 911.

How to Decide If Urgent Care is the Right Choice? 

Start by asking yourself if you need treatment that day or soon. If the answer is no, then you could call your primary care doctor and make an appointment.

If yes, then consider whether the situation is life-threatening or puts you at extreme risk. If you answer yes again, you should call 911 or go directly to the nearest emergency room. If you can answer no, then it is something you can probably take to an urgent care center. 

If you decide urgent care is the right choice, find the one closest to you and check online to see what information they offer. They may provide an average wait time, for example, or give details on what you should bring with you to the appointment. They may even recommend or require you to call ahead. 

Urgent care serves as a bridge between primary care and emergency services. It’s just one more way to get medical treatment when you need it.