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Urgent Care or ER: Where Do I Go?

When you’re sick or hurt, should you head to the hospital or an urgent care clinic? Cost is one part of the equation (and for some people it’s the biggest factor). But it is important that you get the right kind of care quickly — and that’s not something you can always see in a price tag.

If you don’t need emergency care, visiting a walk-in urgent care clinic is more affordable than the ER and it can also help free up those resources for people experiencing life-threatening emergencies.

When Should You Use an Urgent Care Facility?

At its core, an urgent care facility is a well-equipped medical clinic that can diagnose and treat a wide range of minor injuries and illnesses. “Minor” refers to those which don’t threaten the loss of life, eyesight, or limbs.

Many urgent care clinics provide COVID-19 evaluations and tests. But severe symptoms might require treatment at a hospital.

Other conditions urgent care clinics can treat include:

  • flu-like symptoms, severe cough, or sore throat
  • eye irritation
  • bleeding and/or cuts that could require stitches
  • strains and sprains
  • skin infections and rashes
  • vomiting and/or dehydration
  • diagnosis of minor fractures / broken bones via X-ray
  • diagnostics such as laboratory tests and X-rays

That list makes urgent care centers sound a lot like a doctor’s office. But there are two big differences. First, urgent care clinics usually have evening, weekend and holiday hours. Second, you can usually be seen quickly at an urgent care center — no appointment required.

Urgent care patients are often seen on a first-come, first-served basis, though the severity of a patient’s condition does matter. Some urgent care facilities also provide online scheduling for additional convenience.

Urgent care facilities also usually offer more on-site services than primary care doctors, including X-rays and lab tests. They also perform services that emergency rooms may not, such as school physicals, flu shots and other vaccinations.

When to Go to the Emergency Room

Emergency rooms are most often located in hospitals, although there are some free-standing options in some areas.

Note: Be careful not to confuse free-standing ERs with urgent care clinics, as the freestanding ER’s still come with big bills — even if you have insurance.

When choosing between care at a hospital or urgent care walk-in clinic, consider the severity of the illness or injury. Any condition that threatens the loss of life should be treated in an emergency room setting. This includes deep cuts or serious injuries to the eyes or limbs.

The following list is not exhaustive, but it provides you a few guidelines for what requires ER care:

  • severe abdominal pain
  • poisoning from household products
  • compound fractures (anything protruding from skin)
  • seizures, loss of consciousness and/or convulsions
  • bleeding that is heavy or difficult to control
  • severe difficulty breathing
  • serious chest pain

A good rule for the “ER or urgent care” question: if you or a loved one is experiencing a health issue that you would normally head to a primary care office for treatment, an urgent care is likely a good option if your regular doctor is unavailable.

After further evaluation, an urgent care clinic can transfer you to an emergency room, primary care physician, or specialist for more specialized or ongoing care if needed. Find an urgent care clinic near you today and see how we can help you feel better today.

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