Urgent Care versus Emergency Room – Where Should You Go?

Do you find that nine times out of ten, you need medical attention either on the weekend or after your primary physician’s office has closed for the day?  Typically your choice is to either wait until your physician’s office opens, go the Emergency Room at your local hospital, or go to an Urgent Care Clinic.

Emergency Room

Choosing to go to the Emergency Room often means waiting for several hours before receiving any services, and it can be quite costly based on your insurance coverage.  Emergency Rooms attend to catastrophic injuries, for example, a severe injury to the spine, spinal cord, or brain, and may also include skull or spinal fractures.  So,  if your medical concern is not life threatening, expect a long wait while the severely injured take priority.

The American College of Emergency Physicians recommends you seek emergency room (ER) care for conditions such as:

  • Compound fracture (bone protrudes through skin)
  • Convulsions, seizures or loss of consciousness
  • Deep wounds
  • Uncontrollable bleeding
  • Moderate to severe burns
  • Poisoning
  • Serious head, neck or back injury
  • Severe abdominal or chest pain
  • Severe difficulty breathing
  • Loss of vision, sudden numbness, weakness, slurred speech, or confusion (signs of stroke)
  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings

Urgent Care

Conversely, an Urgent Care clinics wait time  tends to be much shorter  and is likely to be more affordable. An urgent care clinic provides the kind of routine injury treatment and medical care that a primary care physician performs in the office.  For example, you may choose to go to Urgent Care for a cough, sore throat, back pain, fever and earache.

Rule-of-thumb suggestions when seeking acute care (adapted from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey):

Top 10 Symptoms

Cough                         Urgent Care

Sore throat                  Urgent Care

Back pain                    Urgent Care

Fever                           Urgent Care

Headache                   Emergency Room

Abdominal pain           Emergency Room

Chest pain                   Emergency Room

Other pain                   Urgent Care

Shortness of breath    Emergency Room

Vomiting                      Emergency Room


A Warning about Unexpected Expenses

In a September 7, 2018 New York Times article entitledHow to (Maybe) Avoid Sticker Shock at the Emergency Room”, Richard Klasco, M.D. and Richard Zane, M.D., suggest “Checking with one’s insurer before visiting the emergency room can be critical for avoiding sticker shock. High deductible, high co-payment plans put the onus on the patient to choose wisely.

While high medical costs cannot be completely avoided, choosing the right venue for care can minimize the potential for sticker shock.”

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