Breaking Down the Difference Between the ER and Urgent Care

ER and Urgent Care

Once upon a time, my foot got impaled by a stingray. After hours of Netflix binging and hot-water soaking, the searing pain began to ease. But the next morning, my swollen foot had expanded half a shoe size. By noon, it had busted out of my slip-on loafer. 

In a daze, I called the triage nurse at my primary care provider. She prescribed me antibiotics and administered an ominous prognosis: “If this swelling continues, it could cut off circulation to your toes.” I heeded her warning and headed to the hospital. 

After hobbling into the ER waiting room, I slumped into a chair and hoped the blaring TV would drown out the hot, itchy tingling in my blown-up foot. Six hours and a $150 copay later, I ambled away with the same prescription I’d gotten from the triage nurse: antibiotics and lots of sleep. 

I took the pills and the rest. I recovered my foot strength and returned to surfing. And I lived happily ever after … until the bill came.

For an ER visit, medical intervention is just the beginning. Maybe you paid the copay on arrival, or maybe your condition sent you past the front desk. One way or another, that hefty hospital bill will come back to sting you. And the consequences could hurt much worse than a swollen foot.

Emergency Room Vs. Urgent Care Clinic

When you need timely medical attention, and the doctor’s office isn’t an option, you have two choices: ER or urgent care. How will you make the call? 

ER Care

The ER is crucial for treating true health emergencies. A life in immediate danger, a fever that won’t break, an ailment that comes with severe or scary symptoms, an injury that makes it impossible to get to the hospital on your own — these conditions will likely warrant a hospital trip. 

When to Go to the ER

  • You need an ambulance
  • You have a life- or limb-threatening injury or illness
  • You need rapid or advanced treatment that is only available at a hospital
  • Your have severe pain or a sudden onset of symptoms 
  • You can’t breathe or use your body as you normally would
  • You have multiple injuries
  • You lose consciousness or experience a change in mental status

When you know, you know. If your gut tells you to get to a hospital, get to a hospital. But for so many health concerns, the ER is not the ticket. For injuries, illnesses, and health conditions that are not life- or limb-threatening, urgent care may be the better option. 

Urgent Care

Urgent care clinics evaluate and treat medical concerns that need a quick response but are not true emergencies. Urgent care has advanced diagnostic imaging, like X-rays and labs, to assess your injury onsite and prescribe medications. If the urgent care provider thinks you need more intensive care, like an MRI or surgery, they’ll send you to the ER.

Maybe you sliced your thumb on a tomato can (been there). Maybe you woke up at midnight with a fever or vomiting (also been there). Maybe you sprained your ankle at a Sunday soccer scrimmage (you guessed it — been there). 

Maybe you’re experiencing dehydration, diarrhea, minor headaches or asthma, or pain with urination. You may need a few stitches or a quick prescription, but you are not in immediate danger. 

When to Go to Urgent Care

  • Your regular doctor is not available
  • You can’t wait for an appointment with your primary care provider
  • You need after-hours care for minor illness or injury

While urgent care is a lot of things, it is not emergency care. If you have chest pain, difficulty breathing, a head or back injury, vaginal bleeding while pregnant, or other threatening conditions, head to an ER. Staff can provide immediate care and interventions that may save your life or limb.

Urgent care is also not a substitute for your primary care doctor. If your child gets an ear infection, or you have repeated UTIs, try calling your doctor for a same-day appointment. They’ll have more insight around you or your child’s medical history, so they’ll know what treatments work best for you and your loved ones.

Where Should You Go When You Need Medical Care?

In comparison to hospitals, urgent care centers have shorter wait times, accept appointments and walk-ins, and are conveniently located in commercial plazas and shopping centers. Most urgent care centers take insurance, and their copays and out-pocket costs are significantly less. (ERs are notorious for unpredictable, overpriced medical bills.) If your condition is not a true emergency, an urgent care visit is the better choice.

I sat in the ER for hours because my swelling was not a true emergency. My life wasn’t at risk, and my toes weren’t going to fall off. I didn’t top the hospital’s list of emergency priorities.

If I’d known to opt instead for an urgent care clinic, I’d have received the same prescription and treatment — but in much less time, and with a much smaller bill. Now that’s the happy ending I’d have wanted.