Urgent Care Or Emergency Care? 3 Ways To Choose

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During the last few years, a previously rare option for after hours and rushed medical treatment has experienced a sudden boom. Urgent care clinics have taken off around the country, and the field has been growing by 8% to 10% per year, according to the Urgent Care Association of America.

Thanks to this rapid growth, it's likely that you have a choice between urgent and emergency care when dealing with a medical problem after hours. Sometimes it's easy to decide. Take your chest pains or active labor contractions to the emergency room, and your low-grade fever to the urgent care clinic, like 24 Hour Urgent Care of the Desert.

But many injuries and illnesses fall into a gray area. What do you choose if your fever is uncomfortably high, but not life threatening yet? Or if you don't know whether you have a bad bump or a concussion? Here are a few factors that can help you chose between the ER and the urgent care clinic.

Level of Care

Both urgent care clinics and emergency rooms are usually run by physicians. But an emergency room has licensed doctors on site at all hours at all times, whereas an urgent care clinic is likely to be staffed with only nursing staff, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants at least some of the time.

What's more, emergency rooms are typically attached to hospitals, where you can be transferred to a wing devoted to a specific condition and treated by a specialist if needed. Urgent care clinics are typically freestanding or located in retail centers, and the most common specialties practiced by urgent care physicians are family medicine and emergency medicine.

That means that if you think your symptoms are related to a specific condition that requires specialist knowledge, you're probably better off at the emergency room, even if you're pretty sure that your life isn't in danger.

For example, if you have cancer and think that your symptoms are related to your treatment, you want to be near a hospital where you'll have access to an oncologist. On the other hand, if you're typically healthy without any pre-existing conditions, and you're experiencing flu-like symptoms, your level of care will probably be the same whether you go to an emergency room or an urgent care.

Wait Times

Both urgent care clinics and emergency rooms practice triage. That means that your wait time is going to be at least somewhat dependent on what brought you in. The most urgent cases are taken first.

However, even taking triage into account, it's a simple fact that urgent care patients are going to spend less time waiting. Emergency rooms are more crowded than urgent care clinics, and they are also dealing with more serious illnesses and injuries. That means longer waits. The average emergency room wait is more than two hours. The majority of urgent care patients are seen in less than 15 minutes. If time is of the essence, your choice is clear.


When it comes to almost any healthcare decision, the big question for most people is "how am I going to pay for this?" If you could go either way between the emergency room and an urgent care clinic, chances are it's cost that will be the deciding factor.

Exact costs depend on your specific insurance plan. But the overhead is lower at an urgent care clinic, which means that costs are also lower. And that means insurance companies are often happier to pay for a visit to an urgent care clinic than they are to pay for a trip to the emergency room. Your co-pay is likely to be lower there as well. And if you're a self-pay patient, it's no contest – you'll almost certainly save by going to the urgent care instead of the emergency room.

When all is said and done, deciding between emergency room care and urgent care is a personal decision, and depends very much on the medical problem at hand. There are definite benefits to both. Your primary care doctor may be able to give you some guidance on when to go to the emergency room and when to go to the urgent care based on your medical history and any specific medical conditions. Either way, you benefit from having the choice available.