Urgent Care vs. the Emergency Room: Deciding Where to Go

in Overall Health by

When someone is injured or becomes ill, our immediate reaction is usually to consider going to the emergency room. But is that really the best place to seek care?

During emergencies, it’s easy to make mistakes thinking that you’re doing the right thing in the moment. Seeking medical assistance is often better than trying to handle the issue on your own. However, an emergency room visit could be unnecessary. Many times an urgent care facility can handle the unexpected injury or illness more quickly and cost effectively.

Emergency Room vs. Urgent Care

Urgent care is a relatively new concept compared to traditional medical services like the ER or an appointment with a primary physician. Essentially urgent care is a middle ground between the two. Urgent care centers can fill the role of primary physicians at night and during the weekend when doctor’s offices aren’t open.

In the 1990s when urgent care centers began to take off, 73% of people said they didn’t have access to their physicians during these times. Of course, injuries and illness can happen at any time of day. Medical industry experts understood there was a need to fill the void so that people got the care they needed when they needed it.

Before urgent care facilities were an option everyone would go to the emergency room. This creates a number of serious issues. Emergency rooms can get overcrowded with patients that don’t need immediate assistance. It’s a distraction for the nurses and doctors that are already overworked trying to take care of people with genuine medical emergencies. It also creates long wait times for patients that don’t need medical intervention right away.

Emergency rooms were never really intended to handle non-life threatening injuries and illnesses. However, that is the very purpose of urgent care centers. Like ERs, many urgent care centers are opened 24/7 so that patients can be admitted at any time with or without an appointment. In many cities across the country, people now have a choice between the two when they need to see a doctor on short notice.

How to Decide If Urgent Care or the Emergency Room is the Best Option

Choosing where to go when there’s an urgent medical need is an important decision. If you live in an area with urgent care facilities use the questions below to decide where to go.

Is the Injury or Illness Life Threatening or Limb Threatening?

If there is any potential that the injury or illness could cause death or the loss of a limb you should go to the emergency room immediately or call 911. The biggest difference between an ER and an urgent care facility is the former is meant for serious medical problems while the latter is designed to handle all other non-life threatening issues.

How Much Are You Willing to Spend?

Most urgent care centers accept health insurance plans from the majority of providers. If you don’t have an urgent care center within your network you may get more coverage by going to the ER. However, keep in mind that with co-pays and deductibles an ER visit could still end up being as costly or even more expensive than going to an urgent care center without coverage. If an urgent care center accepts your insurance this is almost always going to be the more cost effective option.

How long do you want to wait?

Emergency rooms are notorious for their long waits because so many people seek out medical assistance. If your condition is not life-threatening you’ll be put at the back of the line where you may wait for hours before being seen. It’s not uncommon for patients to leave before getting care because they are fed up with waiting.

Urgent care centers are set up to process a number of patients quickly. You may also be able to schedule a time to be seen so you don’t have to wait once you get there.

Do you need a highly specialized service or not know the exact medical need?

Urgent care facilities are staffed by doctors, and they have many diagnostic tools including x-rays machines. That said, there aren’t surgeons and specialists that are capable of identifying all ailments. If you aren’t sure what the problem is and how it can be addressed you may need to go to the emergency room.

Are you experiencing symptoms of a heart attack?

Many heart attack symptoms end up being something else entirely, but you’re better safe than sorry. Experts recommend that anyone experiencing heart attack symptoms should go to the emergency room immediately.

According to researchers, up to 27% of emergency room visits could be handled by urgent care. At the end of the day the choice is yours, just remember the emergency room isn’t your only option.

Image Credits: Wikimedia