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Published on July 29, 2014

Urgent Care Centers vs. Emergency Rooms: Where Should You Go? 

If you’re experiencing a medical issue, it can sometimes be difficult to determine where to go. Does a broken arm require a trip to the emergency room (ER) or can you visit a local urgent care center? What should you do for high fevers? With the multitude of choices, it’s easy to become confused. 

It’s important to know the difference between emergency rooms and urgent care centers so you can make the best decision for yourself or a loved one and get the appropriate care you need. 

What Are The Differences?

Urgent Care Centers

Urgent care centers are designed to provide treatment to patients with less serious conditions when their primary care physician is unavailable. While these centers have extended hours, they are not equipped to handle major medical traumas or conditions. They also see patients on a first-come, first-serve basis, so you’ll likely experience shorter wait times than if you were to go to the ER where the most seriously ill are seen first. 

“Many studies indicate a large chunk of patients who go to the ER could have been seen, diagnosed, and treated at an urgent care center, and at a much lower cost,” said Ryan Hummel, Director of Ambulatory Markets at Abington Health. 

Most health plans include urgent care centers in their networks and the typical copay is around the same cost of a specialty co-pay. “It’s usually less than the ER, and a bit more than a primary care physician or convenient care location,” said Hummel. “But [urgent care centers] also have a diagnostic services and a lab draw site area, which means the visits may be much more comprehensive.” 

Emergency Rooms

Emergency rooms, on the other hand, are designed to treat potentially life-threatening conditions and are open 24-hours a day. Since patients with serious conditions are treated first, those with less urgent needs often wait longer to see a doctor. Although many healthcare plans cover a portion of an ER visit, you may have a co-payment, out-of-network charge, or physician charge—all of which generally cost more than urgent care centers. 

So when should you visit each?

You should visit an urgent care center if you have a condition that needs to be treated quickly, but is not an emergency. Symptoms that are treated in urgent care centers include a fever without a rash, a common sprain, painful urination, diarrhea, severe sore throat, vomiting, urinary tract infections, mild asthma, or broken bones of the wrist, hand, ankle, or foot.

Additionally, these centers treat patients who experience a gradual onset of symptoms, or if they already know the problem but can’t meet with their primary care physician. Hummel also added that best practice for Urgent Care Centers is that they connect nearly every patient with a primary care physician for follow-up, even if they don’t already have one. “It’s vitally important that we are part of the continuity of care for our patients,” he added.

Medical emergencies that require a trip to the ER include persistent chest pain or shortness of breath, symptoms of heart attack or stroke, loss of balance, fainting, difficulty speaking, weakness or paralysis, severe heart palpitations, severe headache, as well as sudden testicular pain and swelling. Emergency rooms also treat head and eye injuries, deep cuts that require stitches, vision loss, intestinal bleeding, vaginal bleeding with pregnancy, infants with a fever, fever with rash, serious burns, repeated vomiting, seizures, or severe pain.

Still Unsure?

While you should always visit the emergency room if you’re unsure where to go, it’s important to know when to call 9-1-1. In some cases, you should call for an ambulance if you have difficulty breathing, a life or limb threatening injury, or if you’re experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. By calling for help, you can begin receiving life-saving treatment in the ambulance much earlier than if you were to drive yourself to the hospital.

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