man reclining on couch with green cast on broken foot after going to urgent care

Urgent Care or ER?

Jan 26, 2021 Urgent Care Share:

It’s 5:30 on a Tuesday evening, and you were changing out a lightbulb in the ceiling fan in your living room. But you leaned over a little bit too far, and you ended up falling off the ladder. After landing a little funny on your arm, you think it might be broken. It definitely hurts, and movement is challenging. You think you need to see a doctor and probably shouldn’t wait until tomorrow, but most doctors’ offices are already closed for the night.

Should you go to the emergency room? Or would urgent care be a better choice?

The emergency room is an important source of medical care, and you should always go to the ER or call 911 in the case of a true medical emergency. But many people use the ER when they could actually receive care from an urgent care clinic or their primary care doctor.

Do you know when you should visit an urgent care clinic and when you should go to the ER? We’ve put together a guide to help you determine the best place to get the right medical care at the right time.

What’s the difference between emergency care and urgent care?

In order to know when you should go to the emergency room and when you should go to urgent care, it’s important to know the difference between the two types of medical care.

The emergency room is for emergency care. A medical emergency is any medical condition or injury that threatens your life or your limb. In other words, if you risk death or disability without immediate medical care, you need to go to the emergency room right away.

Urgent care is for illnesses or injuries that need to be treated by a medical professional today, but that do not present an immediate danger to your life. Many people who visit the emergency room for after-hours care could actually be treated at an urgent care clinic.

Urgent care is more convenient than the ER

Many people choose to visit the emergency room for their illness or injury because it’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and no appointment is required. But if you’ve ever been to the ER for non-emergency medical care, you know that the waiting room can be crowded and you may spend several hours waiting to see the doctor.

An urgent care clinic is a much more convenient choice than the ER. No appointment is required for urgent care visits and clinics are open seven days a week with extended weekday hours for those after-work medical needs.

You’ll also find a much shorter wait to see the doctor at an urgent care clinic than at the emergency room. Most urgent care visits take less than an hour, while the average ER visit is around four hours. Additionally, chances are good that there’s an urgent care clinic near you.

glass jar of cash saved going to urgent care instead of the er

Urgent care is more affordable than the ER

Most emergency room visits cost about $2000, while the average urgent care visit costs around $150. (This cost will vary, depending on your insurance coverage.) While you should never avoid the emergency room in the case of a true medical emergency, it’s important to consider the cost if you’re considering visiting the ER for a non-emergency medical need.

The cost of visiting the emergency room is so much higher than urgent care because it’s expensive to keep the ER open and operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Emergency rooms have to be ready to treat any kind of emergency, and they must staff a number of highly trained, specialized doctors. They also have to have a number of expensive, specialized diagnostic tools.

Urgent care clinics operate more like a regular doctor’s office than an emergency room, and the overhead costs are much lower. Those savings are passed on to you, the patient.

Urgent care provides many of the same services as the ER

Many people choose to go to the ER rather than an urgent care clinic because they believe that the quality of medical care they’ll receive at the ER will be better than at an urgent care clinic. In fact, you can get outstanding medical care from an urgent care clinic for non-emergency medical needs.

At an urgent care clinic, you’ll find doctors who specialize in general medicine and who are ready to treat medical needs from head to toe (and everything in between). An urgent care visit will also feel more like a visit with your primary care doctor, and urgent care doctors are better equipped to spend more time with their patients.

Urgent care clinics also offer many of the same diagnostic tools that you’ll find at a small hospital. Many urgent care clinics have a fully equipped lab to run blood tests, urine tests, and PCR tests for strep, flu, and other illnesses. You’ll also often find that many are equipped with x-ray equipment, and some will even have ultrasound technology for advanced imaging and diagnostics.

You can also get many of the same treatments for non-emergency medical care at an urgent care clinic. Urgent care clinics are equipped to provide steroid injections, stitches, and casting when needed. Some urgent care clinics even have an on-site pharmacy so that you can get your prescriptions before you head home.

When to go straight to the emergency room

Some medical conditions are true emergencies, and you should not go to urgent care - you should go directly to the emergency room or call 911. Go straight to the ER if:

  • You’re experiencing chest pain, especially on the left side. Your chest pain may also be accompanied by lightheadedness, jaw, neck, or back pain, or pain in your left arm.
  • You’re in respiratory distress and are short of breath
  • You’re experiencing symptoms of a stroke. Stroke symptoms include:
    • Facial drooping or numbness
    • Arm weakness
    • Slurred or difficult to understand speech
    • Difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
    • Sudden dizziness or difficulty walking
    • Sudden severe headache with no known cause
  • You’ve experienced a seizure or loss of consciousness
  • You’ve experienced physical trauma or have had a serious head injury
  • You’re bleeding uncontrollably
  • Your life or your limb is in danger

The next time you have a medical need at a time when you can’t get in to see your primary care doctor, consider whether or not you can be treated at an urgent care clinic instead of the emergency room. Remember that the emergency room is for true medical emergencies. For non-emergency medical needs, an urgent care clinic can treat you more quickly and at a fraction of the cost.

Have an urgent medical need?

At MedHelp, we’re here for you. Experience compassionate and convenient urgent care at one of our five Birmingham clinic locations. We’re open when you need us, even on Sunday.