Skip to Main Content

If you’re confused about whether to go to the emergency room or an urgent care clinic for a medical concern, you’re not alone. The names themselves both sound like solutions to pressing matters. But the names can also help you remember the difference between the two.

Put plainly, if you have a medical emergency, go to the emergency room. If you’re dealing with a medical problem that needs urgent attention, go to urgent care. If you’re not sure how to classify your symptoms, read on.

Before we continue, it’s important to also know when to call 911. Life-threatening situations warrant the fastest action. We recommend this article that covers when and when not to call an ambulance.

Where things can get especially murky is when you could go to either. An emergency room can address anything you’d bring to an urgent care. However, there are numerous reasons urgent care may be a better option for you. Therefore, you not only want to understand the specific cases in which you should choose one over the other — you also want to know how the experiences will differ.

When to Go to an Urgent Care Center

Historically speaking, urgent care centers were born out of a desire to provide faster, more economical care for non-emergent patients. For example, when a patient is not in a life-threatening situation, but can’t wait for an appointment with a primary care physician.

Here is a list of examples perfect for visiting an urgent care:

  • Asthma and allergies
  • Ear infections
  • Flu, cold, sore throat
  • Minor cuts and burns
  • Skin infections and rashes
  • Sprains, strains, fractures
  • UTIs and STDs

It’s worth noting the urgent care clinics are generally able to handle labs and x-rays, too. Many still offer telemedicine, and you may be surprised by some of the other services your local clinics provide. They range from drug testing to physicals to even cosmetic treatments you’d find at a med spa.

It’s also becoming more common for younger people in particular to substitute urgent care for a primary care doctor. This may not be advised in a number of cases, like chronic conditions, but it gives you an idea of how to use urgent care. It’s a doctor fast, at a place you may choose again and again for your medical needs.

When to Go to an Emergency Room

Emergency rooms are located within a hospital and can treat major emergencies, such as heart attacks, as they have easy access to operating rooms and critical care units.

According to, an emergency medical condition is defined as one “…manifesting itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that the absence of immediate medical attention could reasonably be expected to result in: a) placing the patient’s or others’ health in serious jeopardy; b) serious impairment to bodily functions; or c) serious dysfunction of any bodily organ or part.”

Some common examples of emergency cases include:

  • Head injuries
  • Passing out
  • Poisoning
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Severe bleeding and burns
  • Severe uncontrolled pain
  • Signs of heart attack
  • Signs of stroke

There are times, however, when even though your condition is not emergent, the nearest emergency room may be the better or only option. We’ll explain in the next section.

The Major Differences Between the Two

When it comes to needing to be seen as soon as possible, you may wonder why you wouldn’t just always choose the emergency department. As we said, the purpose of urgent care is to solve some of the pain points that come with a visit to the emergency department. There are two that matter most to almost everyone: wait time and cost.

Wait Time

Urgent care centers normally have shorter wait time. Because an urgent care doesn’t see high-trauma cases, there is less waiting to be seen for a minor injury. Urgent cares are often open evenings and weekends, closing around 10 or 11 p.m. This means middle-of-the-night illnesses or injuries may need to go to the ER.

Emergency departments usually take much longer to treat non-emergent cases. Emergency cases are always prioritized first. However, ERs are open 24 hours, so they can provide care round the clock.


Urgent care centers can keep their overhead expenses lower, and are a cost-effective alternative to the ER. Patients usually receive treatment for a third of the cost of the emergency department.

Emergency departments are required by law to provide treatment to anyone who requests it, regardless of the patient’s ability to pay, have higher cost due to the requirement that they be prepared to treat any injury or illness, and must carry their share of the hospital overhead. As a result, they charge patients at a higher rate.

Finding an Urgent Care

Most clinics will come up in a Google search, and some may even let you save a spot in line or check in and register through their website. Many of Experity’s customers use software that makes this possible, so if you’re struggling with options through your search engine, you may also use our directory.

If you’re an urgent care professional in need of medical EMR systems, we’ve got you covered.

Find an Urgent Care Near Me


This resource was first published prior to the 2019 merger between DocuTAP and Practice Velocity. The content reflects our legacy brands.

Sign Up for the Urgent Care Minute

Join over 20,000 healthcare professionals who receive our monthly newsletter.