Do I Need Urgent Care or ER?

Urgent Care vs Emergency Room

Choosing the kind of medical care that you need depends on your situation. If you are injured or ill, going to the hospital emergency room (ER) may seem like an appropriate choice. But if you are not facing a real emergency, urgent medical care provides another choice.

Hospitals typically provide a full range of services for common medical conditions as well as a level of emergency care. Urgent care centers offer medical care for conditions that need immediate attention, but are not life-threatening. And, in a doctor’s office, patients usually receive personalized service due to an established working relationship.

When to Go to Emergency Care

You do not need an appointment to go to the ER, but you may have to wait if other patients have more pressing medical needs. Some hospitals use online scheduling tools such as InQuickER to post their ER waiting times so you can check before going to the hospital. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, such as a heart attack or stroke, it is important to call 911 for an ambulance instead of driving. This allows emergency medical services to begin treatment immediately.

According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, warning signs of a medical emergency include:

  • Problems breathing
  • Chest or upper abdominal pain
  • Fainting or sudden dizziness
  • Jaw pain with shortness of breath or chest discomfort
  • Muscle strain, when tied to the inability to walk, fever or an open wound
  • Arm pain with shortness of breath or chest discomfort
  • Changes in vision
  • Uncontrollable bleeding
  • Coughing or vomiting blood
  • Digestive problems, especially sudden, severe stomach pain, coupled with nausea and vomiting
  • Intense back pain with numbness, weakness and fever
  • Confusion or changes in mental status

When to Go to Urgent Medical Care

If you need urgent medical care for a condition that is not serious or life-threatening, you may want to go an urgent care center when you cannot see your primary doctor right away. These centers typically provide treatment for minor illnesses, cuts, burns, puncture wounds, fractures, bites, stings, sprains and strains. They also may offer convenient on-site laboratory and X-rays, as well as extended hours in the evening and on weekends.

The primary difference between an urgent medical care center and your primary doctor’s office is that you can walk into an urgent care center without an appointment. While the center offers convenience, there is a trade-off. Compared with your doctor’s office, center staff may not be familiar with your medical history, and your records will not be on file if you are not a regular patient there. Some centers also do not accept insurance from certain carriers. In addition, like an ER, you may have to wait at an urgent care center if other patients have more pressing medical needs. If your case is not severe and you prefer not to wait in line, schedule an appointment with your doctor’s office.

Ultimately, the hospital ER is the best place to be if you need emergency medical care. In other situations, depending on when they occur and your ability to make an appointment to see your doctor, an urgent care center may be a more convenient, less expensive, time-effective choice.

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