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When to Visit Urgent Care vs. the ER

When to Visit Urgent Care vs. the ER

Seeking medical attention can be confusing — especially when it comes to urgent care clinics and the ER. Let's go over the key differences so you can act fast the next time you become injured or sick.


When it comes to urgent care and ER visits, many people are uncertain which one best suits their circumstances. In fact, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, patients commonly choose the ER over urgent care clinics because they believe the wait time will be shorter. But, the difference in pricing between urgent and emergency care visits can make a world of difference, so it's imperative that you know where to go when emergencies — and urgencies — arise.

Key differences between ER and urgent care

Severity of health problems. Emergency departments provide immediate treatment for life- or limb-threatening health conditions in people of all ages. Urgent care, on the other hand, falls somewhere between an office visit with a primary care provider and the ER, and provides treatment for illnesses and injuries that aren't life-threatening, but need prompt attention. Urgent care is a great option when you can’t wait for an appointment with your primary care provider.

Hours and staffing. While emergency departments are staffed 24/7 with a full emergency care team and access to expert specialists, urgent care clinics are generally staffed with primary care providers, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and nurses.

Examples of conditions that are more commonly treated in urgent care clinics:

  • Cuts and minor burns
  • Earache
  • Back or muscle pain
  • Bronchitis
  • Sprains or joint pain
  • Skin conditions
  • Upper respiratory infection
  • Vomiting
  • Urinary tract infections

Examples of conditions that should be treated in an emergency room:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Head injuries
  • Seizures
  • Pneumonia
  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Compound fractures
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Uncontrolled bleeding

Why it's important to choose the right treatment center

Emergency rooms treat patients based on the severity of each individual's situation. The average visit — from arrival to departure — is over two hours, while urgent care clinics allow you to schedule an appointment. Most urgent care patients are in and out within 30 minutes of arrival. Additionally, urgent care is much more affordable than the average ER visit. See our emergency checklist for a comprehensive list of conditions that require emergency treatment.

If the emergency is life-threatening, call 911 immediately.


This article first appeared in the June 2022 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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