Urgent Care vs. ER: What’s the Difference?
While there are many similarities between the care provided by hospital emergency rooms and urgent care clinics, the biggest differences have to do with the types of services offered, treatment costs, and the convenience of obtaining care.
Either an urgent care or ER facility can offer you care for non-life-threatening emergencies, and both are available beyond the normal operating hours of the typical family physician, internist or pediatrician. In terms of how they operate, an urgent care center functions much more like a primary care center than an actual hospital emergency department. This makes urgent care centers ideal for treating minor injuries and illnesses outside of an emergency room setting.
Although a hospital-affiliated ER offers a broader scope of emergency services, patients seeking care for non-life-threatening emergencies are often forced to wait, while more serious emergencies are treated first. Therefore, patients seeking ambulatory care for non-life-threatening concerns typically receive the necessary care faster and more economically from a non-hospital-affiliated urgent care center.
When to Opt for Urgent Care vs. an Emergency Room
Both emergency departments and urgent care centers offer same-day, unscheduled access to sick care. However, treatment at an urgent care center typically requires less waiting and results in lower costs than for similar services at a traditional hospital ER. Similar to emergency rooms, urgent care centers remain open beyond the hours of a primary care physician, including evenings, weekends and, in some cases, holidays.
Unlike ERs, most urgent care centers do not provide the around-the-clock, broader scope of hospital-affiliated emergency care services, nor do they offer the integrated care that can be found within a hospital setting if you’re admitted to the hospital.
Simply put, if you’re experiencing a life-threatening medical emergency, you should call 911 or head to your nearest hospital ER. If your situation is less critical, there are a number of reasons why your local urgent care clinic might be a smarter choice.
What to Expect from an Urgent Care Clinic
Basically, an urgent care center is a walk-in clinic for patients who require immediate care, without a scheduled appointment, and often outside the normal operating hours of a primary care physician. Care is administered by clinical staff, such as emergency physicians, general or family physicians, and advanced practitioners like physician assistants and nurse practitioners.
In most cases, you won’t need a referral as long as you choose a clinic within your insurance provider’s network. You should verify this with your carrier, however, before you visit the clinic or have the front desk person check.
Conditions typically treated by urgent care centers include:
- Accidents and falls
- Coughs and sore throats
- Diagnostic services, such as X-rays and laboratory tests
- Eye irritation and redness
- Fever or flu
- Minor broken bones and fractures
- Moderate back problems
- Moderate bleeding or cuts requiring stitches
- Skin infections or rashes
- Sprains and strains
- Vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration
- Urinary tract infections
Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room Costs
For less serious problems, an urgent care center often delivers faster, less expensive care than what you would receive from a hospital ER. As a result, insurance carriers typically require a lower co-pay for a visit to an urgent care vs. emergency room.
It is estimated that more than $18 billion could be saved annually if those patients whose medical problems are considered “avoidable” or “non-urgent” were to visit an urgent care and not rely on ERs for their medical needs. For example, the most common diagnostic category treated at freestanding ERs is “upper-respiratory infections,” which has an average price of $1,351 — more than eight times the average price of a self-pay visit at an urgent care, at $165. At MD Now, a self-pay visit at one of our physician-led, state-of-the-art clinics is just $150.
How Do I Find Emergency Care or an Urgent Care Clinic Near Me?
Ideally, you should compare urgent care vs. emergency room providers in your area before you have a need for their services. FloridaHealthFinder.gov and Facility Locator are good places to start. Search for an emergency care and urgent care clinic nearby, and you’ll be presented with a list of providers, their location information, and links to all appropriate inspection reports.
In Florida, for example, you’ll find information on MD Now’s physician-led medical centers. You can also view a listing of addresses and get driving directions to locations throughout Indian River, Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties.
Additional helpful information—including major insurance plans accepted, an online check-in option, and directions to MD Now’s state-of-the-art facilities—can be found at www.MDNow.com.
If you’re looking for an urgent care clinic beyond Florida, the UCA website offers a listing of members located throughout Florida and the U.S. For a list of on-site or off-site emergency care options nearby, the Facility Locator page provides information, localized by county.