Should I go to an Urgent Care Clinic or the Emergency Room?

Mike Olmos by Mike Olmos | Licensed since 2010
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This article was updated on: 12/19/2017

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Should I go to an Urgent Care Clinic or the Emergency Room?

Emergency room or urgent care? Choosing the best place to go when you have a sudden illness or injury “after hours” — when your doctor’s practice is closed — can be challenging.  Do you go to the local urgent care clinic if it’s closer, or if your condition isn’t life-threatening?  Or should you head for the nearest hospital emergency room? Knowing where to go for treatment requires a basic understanding of the medical services urgent care centers and emergency rooms provide.

How do you choose between an urgent care clinic and a hospital emergency room?

Generally, for more serious illnesses and injuries, you should go to a hospital emergency room, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.

Emergency rooms

A hospital emergency room treats a wide range of medical needs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, notes the American College of Emergency Physicians. A hospital emergency room can respond to just about any emergency within the capabilities of the hospital. Typically a hospital emergency room has access to diagnostic radiology services, including CAT scans, MRIs, ultrasound, laboratory services, operating rooms, intensive care, observation care, and acute care medical beds if you need to stay in the hospital. The emergency room physicians usually also have access to doctors of varying expertise on the hospital’s medical staff to consult or to treat.

The American College of Emergency Physicians recommends you seek emergency room (ER) care for conditions such as:

  • Compound fracture (bone protrudes through skin)
  • Convulsions, seizures or loss of consciousness
  • Deep wounds
  • Uncontrollable bleeding
  • Moderate to severe burns
  • Poisoning
  • Serious head, neck or back injury
  • Severe abdominal or chest pain
  • Severe difficulty breathing
  • Loss of vision, sudden numbness, weakness, slurred speech, or confusion (signs of stroke)
  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings

However, the ER isn’t necessarily a good substitute for a doctor visit if your condition isn’t an emergency. A study by the Centers for Disease Control found that almost half the patients who visit emergency rooms, and who are not admitted to a hospital, visited the ER because their doctors’ offices were closed.

Urgent care clinics

An urgent care clinic may provide care when your regular doctor is unavailable. Often open evenings and weekends, an urgent care clinic provides the kind of routine injury treatment and medical care that a primary care physician performs in the office. According to the Scripps Health Foundation, it may be appropriate to go to an urgent care clinic for conditions such as a fever without a rash, earaches, shallow cuts, sprains, painful urination, persistent diarrhea or vomiting. Many urgent care clinics also offer simple X-rays and lab tests. Usually the doctors at an urgent care clinic can prescribe medications to help treat your condition if necessary.

Emergency rooms vs. urgent care clinics: wait times

You typically don’t need an appointment to see a doctor or nurse in an urgent care clinic.  Usually patients are treated first come, first served because of the lower level of sickness or injury of the people who come to an urgent care clinic for treatment, notes the American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine. Urgent care center wait time may be relatively short, nevertheless, because patients can be treated more quickly typically because they have relatively minor, focused health problems.

You also don’t need an appointment to visit a hospital emergency room. Wait time may vary depending upon the seriousness of your condition. Doctors and nurses in emergency room settings triage patients. Triage is a system of scheduling patients for treatment by assigning priority treatment to the most serious cases, explains the American College of Emergency Physicians. A person with a life-threatening condition usually receives priority treatment over a person with a more minor health issue.

Emergency rooms vs. urgent care clinics: your costs

Urgent care clinics are equipped to handle routine medical issues, while hospital emergency rooms can handle more complex conditions, according to the Scripps Health Foundation.  Typically an urgent care clinic provides care at a lower cost than a hospital emergency room, reports the American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine.

You may want tell your doctor when you have received treatment at an emergency room or urgent care clinic. Your doctor can update your medical record and may schedule a follow-up visit for ongoing evaluation of your condition and treatment, if necessary.

 

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