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Urgent care vs. emergency room visits: What’s the difference?

Cropped SingleCare logo By | April 30, 2020
Medically reviewed by Scott Dershowitz, LMSW, CMC

If you’ve ever had a moderate to severe health problem, you’ve probably been to an emergency room or urgent care center. One particularly difficult part of dealing with a health problem is deciding where you should go for treatment. Let’s take a look at the difference between urgent care centers and emergency rooms—and their costs—so you are better informed about where to go should the need arise in the future.

Urgent care vs. emergency room 

With the lone exception of major hospital centers, walk-in clinics, urgent care centers, and emergency rooms are rarely placed together in the same building or location. Sometimes an urgent care center may be located near an emergency room, but this isn’t always the case. Where you end up going will depend on the type of treatment you need, and different clinics are designed to treat different health problems.

Walk-in clinics provide basic medical services like vaccinations. People with mild injuries and illnesses can typically go to a walk-in clinic without an appointment and get care from a nurse or physician’s assistant. Nurse practitioners and MDs sometimes may be available as well.

Urgent care centers are designed to treat people experiencing non-emergency, minor illnesses, and injuries. They provide immediate medical care and outpatient services for people whose conditions could worsen without immediate care. Many urgent care centers are open 24/7 and are great options for people who’re unable to make a same-day appointment with their primary care physician. Urgent care centers are not designed to provide ongoing outpatient treatment beyond a single visit or limited, short-term treatment.

Emergency rooms (ERs) are for people experiencing life-threatening illnesses or injuries. They are meant to treat people with medical conditions that may be life-threatening if they’re not treated within 24 hours. ERs are also the usual hospital entry point for people who require acute inpatient hospitalization for an illness or injury. Wait times at emergency rooms tend to be much longer than at urgent care centers.   

Here are some of the main differences between walk-in clinics, urgent care centers, and emergency rooms. 

Walk-in clinics

  • Can treat mild injuries and illnesses
  • No appointment needed
  • Patients are seen on a first-come, first-serve basis
  • Might not have equipment like X-ray machines
  • May not have MDs available every day, and instead may use NPs or physician assistants
  • More affordable than urgent care or emergency rooms 

Urgent care

  • Can treat mild or moderately serious injuries and illnesses
  • Usually no appointment needed—often open seven days a week, but you should call your urgent care location to confirm hours of operation
  • Patients are seen on a first-come, first-serve basis
  • Have medical equipment like X-ray machines and can treat broken bones
  • Usually have a medical doctor onsite at all times
  • Generally have a higher copay than primary care visits

Emergency rooms 

  • Can treat serious and life-threatening injuries and illnesses with the highest level of care
  • No appointment needed—open 24/7, however, wait times are typically much longer than walk-in or urgent care centers 
  • Have triage systems that prioritize patients with more serious conditions over those with less serious conditions
  • Have the necessary medical equipment to treat life-threatening conditions
  • Have nurses, doctors, and surgeons available at all times, or the capacity to get you the emergency care you need quickly
  • Can be expensive in comparison to walk-in and urgent care centers for some healthcare plans

Should I go to urgent care or the emergency room?

Knowing when to go to urgent care vs. emergency room could potentially save you time and money. It depends on the particular healthcare plans coverage of a patient but you wouldn’t want to spend more time and money at the emergency room when your condition could have been treated more affordably at urgent care. 

Urgent care services

Here’s a list of conditions, symptoms, and injuries that can be treated at an urgent care center: 

  • Common cold and flu symptoms
  • Coughs and sore throats
  • Minor burns
  • Broken bones
  • Ear infections 
  • High fevers
  • Minor sprains or pulled muscles
  • Minor lacerations and cuts  

“These are just a few of the many conditions that urgent care clinics treat on a daily basis,” says Jay Woody, MD, a co-founder of Legacy ER & Urgent Care. “But remember: Although these facilities can run advanced diagnostic and laboratory services, that doesn’t mean a life-threatening condition can be treated here. In addition, the average urgent care physician sees 4.5 patients per hour, which means your wait time will ultimately be short.”

Emergency room services

More serious conditions should be treated at an emergency department. Here’s a list of conditions, symptoms, and injuries that are considered to be a medical emergency: 

  • Chest pain
  • Severe bleeding
  • Deep wounds
  • Severe abdominal pain 
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Compound fractures
  • Head injuries 
  • Severe shortness of breath 
  • Severe heart palpitations
  • Sudden difficulty speaking or understanding speech 
  • Sudden vision changes
  • Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
  • High fevers (especially for newborn babies)  
  • Suicidal ideation and other psychiatric emergencies

These symptoms and conditions should never be ignored because they could pose a serious threat to your life. Emergency services staff are all trained and equipped to deal with these conditions at an emergency room, explains Dr. Woody. 

Primary care services

While emergency rooms and urgent care centers are great, sometimes it’s not necessary to go to either. Parents can avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office and save lots of money by learning to treat their children’s mild cuts and scrapes at home.  

Adults and children should see a primary care provider for things such as:  

  • Annual checkups
  • Chronic illness management
  • Common cold and flu treatment
  • Preventive care
  • Earaches
  • Prescriptions 
  • Vaccinations
  • Urinary tract infections (UTI’s)  

Going to see your primary care physician for these types of things is always a good idea because your doctor knows you and your medical history. If you try to make an appointment with your doctor and they’re booked out or on vacation, then a trip to a walk-in clinic or urgent care center is the next best thing. 

If you or your child’s symptoms worsen dramatically or you start experiencing chest pain, difficulty breathing, uncontrollable bleeding, or other serious symptoms, then it’s time to call 911 or visit an emergency room.   

Is urgent care cheaper than the emergency room?

Where you go for medical treatment will partially determine how much you end up paying. Seeing a primary care doctor typically will be less expensive than going to an urgent care center, and going to an urgent care center is typically less expensive than a trip to the ER. If you have health insurance and go somewhere for medical treatment, you’ll often have a copay or coinsurance that you have to pay depending on your deductible requirements. 

A copay is a flat rate that a doctor, urgent care center, or emergency room will charge for their care services. The rate is determined by your healthcare plan. Urgent care and emergency room visits usually have higher copays than regular doctor office visits.   

Generally, it’s best (and most cost-effective) to go to in-network urgent care facilities if possible. However, emergency rooms are an exception. Insurance companies can’t penalize policyholders with a higher copay if you seek emergency care at an out-of-network hospital. Note: Even if you have insurance, certain tests and providers may not be covered by your insurance network, so you could be billed for some services. Everyone’s health insurance plan is different, so it’s always best to check with your insurance company to get an estimate on what you might end up paying if you have to go to an urgent care center or emergency room. 

Most urgent care centers will see people even if they don’t have health insurance, but they do have the right to turn someone down if they won’t be able to afford it. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act that was passed in 1986 requires all emergency rooms to treat and stabilize anyone who comes in, regardless of his or her ability to pay or insurance status. 

Without insurance, an urgent care center visit can cost anywhere from $100 to $200. If you need X-rays or other tests done, this may cost more. Whereas, a trip to the emergency room can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars without insurance depending on the service you need.    

There’s no doubt that going to the emergency room or an urgent care clinic can be expensive, especially if you don’t have good health insurance. The average deductible in the United States is $4,544, and nearly 61% of medical debt in the U.S. is from emergency room visits. 

Bottom line: Prioritize your health over medical bills

The financial aspect shouldn’t stop you from seeking medical attention when you need it, though. One in three Americans say they’ve avoided seeking medical attention when they needed it because they were worried about the cost. This means that thousands of Americans are risking their health even when they need medical attention.

If you’ve been to an urgent care center or emergency room and have a large medical bill, there are ways to find help. Many hospitals offer payment plans and can refer you to financial aid programs in your area. Many hospitals also offer generous charity care or can assist you with applying for health insurance. And of course, you can always use SingleCare to save on your prescription medications.

When it comes to staying healthy, the thought of medical bills shouldn’t get in the way. It’s always a good idea to be safe and take care of yourself.