Hey y’all! I’m back at it with another medical post and today we’re chatting about the ER vs. urgent care. I have been working in urgent care for almost 3 years and as a provider, I see a lot of confusion in this area and believe it or not the urgent care is NOT a faster ER. Today I’m breaking down when you may want to visit an urgent care instead of an ER and vice versa.
Disclaimer: This post is only my opinion and for any medical advice, please consult your healthcare provider and if you’re having a true emergency, obviously call 9-1-1!
Urgent cares have become a popular form of medical care for many reasons. One big reason is that you don’t need an appointment which is convenient if you have something come up and can’t get in with your primary care provider (which everyone should have, btw). Another benefit is most urgent cares are open late, usually until 8-10pm and some are even open 24 hours. Typically urgent cares are less expensive than ERs for obvious reasons and are often thought of as being faster.
Let’s also put some emphasis on the word “urgent.” This is not the place to request a full wellness physical or dig deep into why your knee has been hurting for 5 years. Urgent usually implies that something has happened recently (acute) vs. has been going on for a long time (chronic).
Here is a general rule of thumb: If you think you have something life-threatening going on that could potentially kill you (heart attack, stroke, blood clot, stab/gunshot wound, severe head injury) then please, call 9-1-1 and get yourself to the ER as soon as possible!
Emergency rooms are usually connected to a hospital (although some are freestanding) and have way more diagnostic and testing capabilities than urgent cares. Think CT scans, ultrasounds, STAT blood work, and even consults from specialists. They are also busy places with several physicians, PAs, NPs and nurses (and are open 24 hours, 365 days a year).
Urgent cares are smaller, usually only 1-3 providers and much smaller staff. We can do small procedures (sutures, incision & drainage of abscesses, splinting fractures). Imaging is usually limited to x-rays and labs are typically sent out (although this depends on the actual clinic setup).
Below is a list of common conditions and where they typically best fit when you’re considering medical care. Of course other things matter like age and medical history and getting some kind of care is better than none at all!
- Cold/flu/sinus infections
- Pink eye
- Ear infections
- Sore throat/strep
- UTI (urinary tract infections)
- Yeast infections
- STD testing
- Ankle sprains
- Minor fractures
- Minor lacerations
- Skin infections/rashes
- School/work physicals
- Head injuries
- Chest pain (can’t stress this one enough)
- Shortness of breath
- Stroke symptoms (slurred speech, facial droop, balance problems)
- Severe abdominal pain
- Any abdominal pain or bleeding when pregnant (if you can’t see your OB)
- Testicular pain
- Major fractures
- Major car accident
- Deep lacerations
Now, it definitely goes the other way too. The ER probably isn’t the best place for a cold, stubbed toe, or a pregnancy test. And yes, people really go there for those things ALL the time- and we wonder why our healthcare costs are so high… but we won’t get into all that today!
I’m sure many of you already know the main differences between urgent cares and ERs but hopefully this outlines some of the common conditions that each facility sees. If you have any specific questions- let me know in the comments below!
You can see my other PA related posts here!