Urgent Care vs. ER – What’s The Best Option?

If you have ever awakened to a stuffy nose and sore throat, or injured yourself around the house, you’ve probably been faced with the decision of where to seek medical treatment. Should you see your primary doctor? Should you run to the ER?

What if it’s the weekend and the doctor’s office is closed? Suddenly your options narrow to two choices: an emergency room or an urgent care facility. What are the differences, and which one is most appropriate for your ailment? To simplify your decision, we’ve created an infographic with some key differentiators below.

To download the full infographic, please click here.


When should you go to an urgent care clinic vs an emergency room?

What is an urgent care facility?

First it’s helpful to understand what an urgent care facility is and how it operates. Urgent care facilities are a relatively recent development in the medical treatment industry. They originated in the 1990s in response to complaints that patients couldn’t see their doctors after hours or on weekends, but they didn’t necessarily need an ER.

Urgent care facilities, therefore, are the midway point between two extremes. They offer treatment similar to a personal doctor, yet they are open almost as much as hospitals. Often covered by insurance, urgent care facilities are the perfect way to treat an ailment after hours without the hassle—or cost—of an ER.

Differences Between an ER and Urgent Care
Even though urgent care centers offer the perfect midway point between medical care and hours of operation, it’s not always easy to determine when you should go to one. If you have a life-threatening injury, for example, the choice is obviously to get to a hospital.

But minor ailments may or may not add up to a serious condition, and you may feel torn between the two. How do you decide?

Types of Ailment

One of the most important factors for deciding between an urgent care and ER is your symptoms. If you have any of the following symptoms of a severe condition, go to the ER:

  • A hard time breathing
  • A lot of diarrhea or vomiting
  • Confusion
  • An onset of dizziness, vision changes, or weakness
  • Pain or pressure in the chest
  • Bleeding that can’t be controlled
  • Vomiting or coughing up blood
  • Having trouble breathing

On the other hand, if you have minor symptoms such as a fever, sore throat, minor scrapes and bruises, or other non-life threatening symptoms, you can count out the ER visit. Go instead to an urgent care, where the cost is much lower.

One of the biggest differences between an urgent care facility and an ER is the cost. In fact, this is often the reason patients choose urgent cares over the ER, where costs can end up being 10 times more.

For example, the mid-range cost of ER visits is $1,233. The average urgent care visit, by contrast, is $150. Both costs can be minimized by insurance copays, but if you have a high-deductible insurance policy, which is becoming more common, that means you’ll likely have to pay the full amount before insurance kicks in. Urgent care facilities make more sense if you aren’t in a life-or-death situation because of cost alone.

And although ERs are required by law to take patients whether or not they have insurance—which is why many patients choose them—most urgent care facilities will take patients under the same conditions.

Wait Times
Another reason you might consider an urgent care over an ER is wait times. ERs tend to require a long wait not only in the lobby waiting room, but even after you’re in the exam room. Not so at an urgent care.

Urgent care facilities see patients on a first come/first serve basis, and the average time from arrival to departure is only 30 minutes. This isn’t the case at an ER because they bring patients back in order of severity of ailment, and the average time from arrival to departure is 2 ¼ hours.

Times of Operation
Urgent care facilities exist to serve patients after hours on weekdays and weekends, but they aren’t always 24-hour facilities. If you have an issue arise in the middle of the night, as might happen if your child wakes up sick, you may still have to rush to the ER.

However, that doesn’t mean urgent cares aren’t convenient. For the types of ailments urgent cares treat, their hours are reasonable. They are usually open seven days a week until 9 or 10 PM.

Which one will you choose?
There are certainly times when choosing an ER is appropriate, but that doesn’t mean you should go there every time your doctor is out of pocket.

Take into consideration a few things: how bad your symptoms are, how much you want to spend on medical treatment, and then look at the time. If it’s before 9 PM, you might just want to save your time and money at an urgent care facility.