Urgent Care or the Emergency Room? Which Should You Choose?

Say you twist your ankle playing soccer with your kids. Or maybe your daughter has a rash that's spreading. Do you visit urgent care or the hospital emergency department?

Many cases of injury or illness can be handled at an urgent care clinic rather than a hospital emergency department, experts say.

Urgent Care or the Emergency Room? Which Should You Choose?
The urgent care doctor cleans the girl's injured knee, while her mom is comforting her. | Foto: GETTY IMAGES

Urgent care is a good starting point, especially when you can't see your primary care provider on the same day. The healthcare providers can do an evaluation and provide treatment and, if necessary, refer patients to specialty services.

"We deal with a lot of minor sprains and simple fractures -- we can do an X-ray and stabilize a fracture with splinting,'' said Mary Dixon, a certified registered nurse practitioner at Penn State Health Carlisle Outpatient Center. 

Health providers at urgent care facilities write prescriptions ranging from antibiotics to topical creams, and consult with doctors when necessary.

Going to urgent care can also save time and money. Most health insurance plans charge more out-of-pocket for emergency room visits than for an urgent care visit.

Typically, in urgent care, the doctors and other health professionals deal with one complaint, and they try to keep the  visits to 15 minutes, Dixon said, noting a typical emergency room wait for a non-life-threatening problem is easily an hour or more.

Sometimes urgent care sounds a little misleading. People associate that with an emergency, but urgent care is for convenient care for common issues that do not require in-depth evaluation.

But a major medical emergencies require a trip to the emergency department. These include:

  • Chest pain, which could be a sign of a heart attack
  • Severe abdominal pain and/or vomiting blood
  • Trouble breathing
  • Fever above 102.5 degrees
  • Major head injuries
  • Potential stroke symptoms, such as a sudden change in mental status, weakness and difficulty speaking and thinking
  • Overdoses
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Physical or sexual assaults or abuse
  • Deep wounds or compound fractures, where a bone has pierced the skin.

Emergency vs Urgent Care: more differences

Unlike most physicians, emergency physicians are prohibited by law from discussing with a patient any potential costs of care or insurance details until they are screened and stabilized, according to Emergency Physicians.

 This is an important patient protection enacted under the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) that ensures care is focused on immediate medical needs.

However, that doesn't mean there won't be costs to you. They will probably be very high costs due to specialized care or a  surgery, for example.

Emergency physicians treat the toughest cases—and often must make decisions with limited medical information. An emergency physician might deliver a baby or stitch a young boy’s deep gash or comfort a teenager after a suicide attempt. These doctors save lives every day and are an integral part of our nation’s health care safety net.

Open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, many hospital emergency departments are crowded places, where doctors treat many different patients during long shifts. 

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