Urgent care, emergency room (ER), and primary care are all different types of medical facilities that provide unique levels of care — and it's important to choose the right one for your medical needs.
For minor injuries and illnesses, urgent care or primary care can be a better choice than an emergency room. However, if you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, the emergency room is usually the best option.
In this post, we’re breaking down what you need to know about each form of care so you can act quickly should a medical emergency arise.
Is Urgent Care Better Than ER?
Both urgent care and the ER are medical facilities that treat illnesses and injuries, but each has a different level of care, and you should use them accordingly.
Urgent care centers provide medical attention for illnesses or injuries that are not life-threatening but still require immediate medical attention.
They typically offer shorter wait times and lower costs than ERs. Most urgent care clinics are open for extended hours and are a good option for treating minor injuries (such as sprains and strains), illnesses, and routine medical issues.
The ER, on the other hand, is designed to provide emergency care for serious and life-threatening conditions. They're equipped to handle serious injuries, heart attacks, strokes, and other critical medical conditions. Most emergency rooms are open 24/7 and staffed by trained emergency medical professionals.
Understanding the difference between the two is critical to choosing the appropriate facility based on the severity of your condition. If you have a medical emergency, you should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. If your condition isn't an emergency, an urgent care center may be a better option.
Should I Go to Urgent Care or the Emergency Room?
Deciding whether to go to an urgent care center or the emergency room depends on how severe your condition is.
Medical conditions that require immediate or advanced treatment, such as surgery, are considered emergencies. These conditions should be evaluated in an emergency room setting.
Examples of symptoms that would require a visit to the ER include:
- Persistent chest pain radiating to the arm or jaw
- Breathing difficulties or shortness of breath
- Abdominal pain spreading down to the back
- Sudden clumsiness with balance and fainting issues
- Difficulty in speaking and comprehending speech
- Confusion or change in mental state, including suicidal thoughts
- Rapid onset of weakness or paralysis on one side of the body
- Severe heart palpitations
- Intense headache
- Sudden testicular pain and swelling
- Significant injury from falls
- Change in vision, including blurred or double vision
- Bone fractures or joint dislocations
- Head or eye injuries
- Severe burns
- Unexpected seizures without a history of epilepsy
- High fever accompanied by a rash
- Severe flu or cold symptoms
- Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
- Continuous vomiting or diarrhea
If you have a medical emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
If you are unsure whether your condition is an emergency, you can consult your primary care physician or call a nurse triage hotline. They can help you decide whether to go to an urgent care center or the emergency room.
What Is Acute Care?
Another term you might hear while you’re determining where to visit for medical attention is acute care.
Acute care is a type of medical treatment that occurs for a limited time, typically for severe injuries or illnesses, urgent medical conditions, or post-surgery recovery. This type of treatment is focused on addressing the immediate needs of the patient.
The emergency room, typically used for handling critical and urgent medical situations, is an example of acute care.
Is Urgent Care Considered Primary Care?
While urgent care and primary care are both essential for your overall healthcare, they each serve their own purpose.
A PCP, or primary care physician, is a general practitioner who acts as the initial point of contact for healthcare needs.
They're often a long-term healthcare provider, as patients typically remain with the same PCP for a significant portion of their adult lives unless they move or change insurance plans.
In most cases, the PCP becomes familiar with the patient, monitoring their health, diagnosing and treating illnesses, and facilitating referrals to specialists when necessary.
Urgent care centers, on the other hand, are walk-in clinics that provide treatment for a range of injuries and illnesses that are more time-sensitive than a visit to a primary care physician but not severe enough for an emergency room visit. They are considered an intermediary between emergency room treatment and primary care.
What Is the Difference Between Urgent Care and Primary Care?
Urgent care centers provide medical treatment for illnesses or injuries that are not serious enough to require a visit to the emergency room but require prompt attention.
Primary care physicians provide ongoing, comprehensive care for individuals and families, including preventative care, health screenings, and treatment for acute and chronic conditions.
Urgent care is typically used for more immediate, short-term needs, while primary care is for ongoing, long-term health management.
When to Use Urgent Care vs Doctor
Curious about when you should visit urgent care vs. a primary care doctor? The answer is simple: routine maintenance of your health is a great reason to visit your doctor.
Seeing a doctor regularly — specifically, the same doctor — is one of the best ways to focus on prevention and early diagnosis of chronic conditions and other serious illnesses that might not include easy-to-spot symptoms.
Urgent medical concerns are those that require attention within 24 hours but are not life-threatening emergencies.
It is possible to use urgent care as a primary care provider if your regular physician is unavailable or fully booked. However, it's important to keep in mind that the medical staff at urgent care centers will not have the same level of familiarity with your medical history as your primary care physician.
Urgent care centers sometimes offer diagnostic services that many primary care physicians may not, such as blood tests and x-rays. They also treat a wide array of illnesses and injuries, including:
- Flu shots and travel vaccines
- Seasonal allergies
- Ear infections
- Mild fevers
- Sprains and contusions
- Wellness checks
- Minor burns
- Urinary tract infections
- Mild back pain
- Non-vision-threatening eye injuries
- Vomiting or diarrhea
CareNow® urgent care clinics offer the convenience of getting medical care in a hurry. With over 175 locations across the country, our clinics are open during extended hours and on weekends.
You can easily find the nearest clinic by visiting our website and using our Web Check-In® feature to wait from any location. To see a full list of the services available at CareNow®, you can click here.
We are proud to have been recognized by the Urgent Care Association (UCA) as an Accredited Urgent Care Center, a distinction that showcases the high quality of our care.