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!
What a helpful post Kristina! I’ve always kind of wondered which place is better for which things!
Loved this post! Good point that the ER is connected to the hospital, so for major issues that’s probably your best bet.
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Hillary Conheady says
Thank you for sharing this! SO much good info here that I needed to know!
This is such a good list! Sometimes it’s hard to know which place to choose. I know when my kids needed stitches we were confused. haha thanks for posting this!
Such a helpful post! I went to Urgent Care once for what ended up being appendicitis! It definitely would have been much better to go straight to the ER!
Sarah Lindner says
What a helpful post! Thank you so much for sharing!
Ciera Chang says
Luckily I haven’t had to visit either of these yet, but thank you for sharing this! Will definitely keep this in mind next time I have a medical issue!
More individuals need to read this! My mom worked in an emergency room for several years as a patient liaison and it was crazy how many people would visit them for the simpler things, but go to the urgent care facility for the more intensive challenges. I guess it can be really confusing for some people. Thanks for breaking this down!
This is such a helpful post! So great to know what types of situations require the ER or urgent care!
cute & little
Ashley Hargrove says
This is such a helpful post!! I literally always go to urgent care or just do nothing and wait it out!! ha! I’m one of those people that hates going to the doctor and urgent care has always been the easiest for minor health issues/injuries! Definitely saving this!
As a fellow Urgent Care PA, I love this! Half of my day is explaining to the higher acuity patients why they belong in the ED and not urgent care. I have also found that the more serious the patient’s condition, the more reluctant they are to go to the ED.
So helpful! Thanks for sharing this!
Steele Honda says
Thanks for pointing out that it can be smart to go to an Urgent Care instead of the ER for an ear infection or for a sore throat. I have noticed that my son might have a sinus infection coupled with an ear infection and I think it would be smart to go to a local Urgent Care. I think that it would help make sure that he could get care quickly and that it wouldn’t be as expensive.