Doctor Decoded: Emergency Room vs. Urgent Care

Which one should you visit for your sore throat? Concussion? Fracture?

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You wake up on a Saturday morning with a searing sore throat. Your doctor’s office is closed until Monday, but you can barely swallow. You know antibiotics are in your future, but you need to get a prescription first. Do you visit the emergency room? Or an urgent care?

Or, alternatively, do you stick it out until you can get an appointment with your primary care doctor?

Knowing the difference between these two ambulatory healthcare facilities is important, but it can also be difficult—especially since urgent and emergency are sometimes used as synonyms in casual conversation.

The emergency room (ER) or emergency department is meant for life-threatening issues. They are the appropriate place to seek treatment for:

Doctors and nurses in the ER have been trained to respond to these critical situations, and are experienced in making quick decisions under pressure. The ER is also open 24/7, so you can get the life-saving care you need, even if it’s 2 A.M.

Urgent care (UC) is for health issues that need prompt treatment, but they aren’t life-threatening. They can help you see a doctor sooner than trying to make an appointment with your regular provider, or they can provide service if you get sick or injured on a Saturday, when your regular clinic is closed. (If it's not "urgent," it's usually better to make an appointment with your primary care doctor, even if it means having to wait a day or two.)

Urgent care is the appropriate place to seek treatment for:

  • Typically minor infections (influenza, strep, UTIs, pink eye, skin infections, sinusitis, etc.)

  • Insect bites

  • Migraines

  • Minor broken bones or sprains (no protruding bones)

  • Accidents or falls

  • Or minor cuts that need stitches.

UCs can often place stitches, put on a cast, or take X-rays and CT scans. Most of them are open seven days a week, but most are not 24 hours—so if you need stitches at 11 P.M., you’ll probably need to go to the ER.

UCs emerged in the 1970s, but they exploded in popularity in the 2000s, especially in larger cities. This growth can be credited to two reasons: UCs are less expensive than the ER (so patients don’t have to pay top dollar just for a few stitches), and they take non-emergency cases out of the ER to lighten the burden. This gives ER doctors more time to focus on life-threatening cases.

Sometimes, the choice isn’t clear. If you’re not sure, consider giving your doctor a call, so they can lead you in the right direction to get the care you need. Again, in some cases, they might advise you to wait until you can come in to their office, instead of seeking ambulatory care.

Oh, and if you feel like there’s no time to call your doctor, that’s probably a good sign that the ER is the right place to go.