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Urgent Care vs. Primary Care vs. Emergency Room: Which Option is Right for You?

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Urgent Care Vs Emergency Room

writtenByWritten by: Sofie Wise
Sofie Wise

Sofie Wise

Sofie hopes to create a more sustainable healthcare system by empowering people to make conscious health decisions. Her interests include cooking, reading, being outdoors and painting.

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January 13, 2021 Read Time - 8 minutes

What is Urgent Care?

Urgent care centers are meant to provide easy access to quality healthcare. For a long time, hospitals were the main point of care for most people. They were accessible to their surrounding populations and staffed by physicians in the area. If you needed stitches or had a twisted ankle, you could go to your hospital and receive prompt, efficient care.

However, healthcare has changed quite a bit over the last couple of decades. Hospital emergency rooms are now a bustling hub of illness and injury. Oftentimes, you will find your local emergency room understaffed and overflowing with patients.

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Emergency rooms also prioritize the treatment of patients by the severity of their illness, so if you are experiencing something like a sore throat or pain urinating, it may take hours to actually speak with a physician.

Enter, urgent care. Urgent care is meant to fill the gap between the emergency room and going to your primary care physician. They are there for non-emergency issues that need timely care. Getting an appointment with your primary care physician can take weeks or even months, so urgent care centers are a great alternative to receive the care you need. 

According to the University of Chicago School of Medicine, “Many urgent care clinics also have advanced diagnostic imaging like X-ray machines and lab capabilities to assess your illness or injury onsite. Urgent care providers can prescribe medications and recommend a higher level of care, if needed.”

Urgent care centers typically offer visits without an appointment and have extended hours so that you can get the care you need as quickly as possible.

What Can Urgent Care Treat?

Urgent care centers are equipped to treat a number of different things. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Strep ThroatStrep throat, or streptococcal pharyngitis, refers to an inflammation of the throat caused by a bacterial infection. The infection leads to swelling in your tonsils and in the mucus membranes that line the back of your throat and causes an itchy, sore and swollen sensation in the throat.
  • Birth ControlBirth control pills, also known as oral contraceptives or “the pill,” are a common form of hormonal birth control. Birth control pills have been studied for over 50 years and were approved by the FDA for contraceptive use in 1960. Since then, the pill has become one of the most convenient, popular, and accessible methods of birth control.
  • Urinary Tract Infections – A urinary tract infection, or “UTI,” occurs when harmful bacteria enter the urinary tract. Symptoms of a urinary tract infection are usually burning with urination, increased frequency of urination, the feeling of incomplete bladder emptying, or bladder pressure. Your urine may appear to be cloudy or pinkish and may have a foul odor.
  • Ear Infections – An ear infection is the common description of the condition known as acute otitis media (AOM). AOM occurs when a bacteria or virus causes an infection in the space behind the eardrum. If an infection causes this space to fill with fluid, it can lead to increased pressure and cause significant discomfort.
  • Cold Symptoms – The common cold is a group of symptoms that is caused by a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. There are many different viruses that can infect the upper respiratory tract and cause the common cold. As a result, symptoms vary slightly from cold to cold. Some typical common cold symptoms include sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat, sinus congestion, cough, headache and low-grade temperature.
  • Flu Symptoms – Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by a number of different viruses. These viruses can infect your lungs, nose, and throat. Some common influenza symptoms include fever, sore throat, coughing, congestion, headaches, aching muscles, and general fatigue.
  • Broken Bones/Sprains – Sprains or minor fractures are perfectly appropriate for your local urgent care. Typically, urgent care centers are equipped with x-ray machines and technicians so that their doctors can properly assess your injury. If you’re experiencing any major pain in your joints or bones (particularly from an accident or fall), give your local urgent care a call and see if they can provide an assessment and treatment for you.
  • Upset Stomach – Gastritis is a condition in which the lining of the stomach becomes inflamed. Gastritis can lead to abdominal discomfort and pain.
  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.

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What is an Emergency Room?

An emergency room is exactly what it sounds like, a room or area at your hospital that is dedicated to treating emergency medical issues. This department is responsible for the provision of medical and surgical care to patients arriving at the hospital that require immediate care.

Emergency room personnel may also provide care for certain situations occurring within the hospital itself, such as cardiac arrest or seizure.

What Can an Emergency Room Treat?

The emergency room is meant for true medical emergencies. These include emergencies that require hospitalization or surgery. Some of the most common emergencies that would qualify an emergency room visit include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Signs of stroke
  • Major trauma
  • Suicide attempts
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Uncontrolled bleeding
  • Broken bones or dislocated joints
  • Head injuries
  • Unusually high fever
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness
  • Seizures without previous diagnosis of epilepsy
  • Serious burns

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, do not worry about cost and go to the emergency room. We understand the difficulties that the cost of an emergency room visit may bring. However, financial burden should not outweigh potentially life saving treatment.

If you’re not sure whether or not you need emergency care, refer to the chart below or contact a doctor and ask. You may also be taken to an emergency room by calling 911 in the United States.

Is it Cheaper to go to the Emergency Room or Urgent Care? 

It is significantly cheaper to go to urgent care than an emergency room.

A trip to an urgent care center will typically cost you around $100 with additional costs if you need x-rays, shots, or labs. However, an emergency room visit typically costs $500, if not $1,000. Unless you need emergency treatment, avoid the high costs of emergency rooms and head to your local urgent care center.


Read: Is Urgent Care Covered By Insurance?


When Should I go to Urgent Care vs the Emergency Room

Below is a simple chart to help you determine what conditions, injuries, and emergencies are better suited for urgent care centers vs emergency rooms.

ConditionUrgent CareEmergency Room
Flu
Sore Throat
Urinary Tract Infection
Ear Infection
Cold Symptoms
Low Grade Fever
Headaches
Sprains
Upset Stomach
Chest Pain
Trouble Breathing
Signs of Stroke
Blunt Trauma
Suicide Attempt
Severe Abdominal Pain
Motor Vehicle Accident
Broken Bones
Dislocated Joints
Head Injuries
High Fever
Loss of Consciousness
Seizures
Burns
Uncontrollable Bleeding
  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.

PlushCare-App-Steps

Online Doctors

Online doctors hold a unique position in the debate between urgent care vs emergency room care. An online doctor is exactly what it sounds like, an online medical provider arranges a virtual appointment between you and a licensed doctor. 

Online physicians are able to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication for nearly all the medical services an urgent care center may provide. In short, you can get urgent care online! Because of this, if you are doubtful that you need emergency treatment, an online appointment may be perfect for your needs.

Online physicians are cheaper, more convenient, and can perform nearly all the same services as an urgent care center.

Online physicians often practice medicine both in-person and online. They may have a “day job” working at a hospital or smaller practice and choose to spend their evenings or weekends practicing medicine from the comfort of their homes. Telemedicine is great because it gives both patients and physicians the flexibility and convenience of speaking to each other from wherever they may be.

Here at PlushCare, all of our online physicians have attended one of the top 50 medical institutions in the United States, so you can rest assured that you will be receiving top-notch, quality care. Our doctors are excited about the opportunity to make medical care more affordable and more accessible!

If you are experiencing symptoms and think you might need an urgent care appointment, just click here to book an appointment online. PlushCare has all of the benefits of urgent care with none of the hassle.

Read More About Urgent Care

Sources

scripps.org. Should You Go to the Emergency Room or Urgent Care? Accessed on December 29, 2020 at https://www.scripps.org/news_items/4231-should-you-go-to-the-emergency-room-or-urgent-care

mountsinai.org. What is Urgent Care and When Should You Use It? Accessed on December 29, 2020 at https://www.mountsinai.org/locations/urgent-care/what-is-urgent-care

uchicagomedicine.org. When to go to the emergency room vs an urgent care clinic. Accessed on December 29, 2020 at https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/health-and-wellness-articles/when-to-go-to-the-emergency-room-vs-an-urgent-care-clinic

Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

American College of Emergency Physicians. Urgent Care Centers. Accessed on February 5, 2021. https://www.acep.org/patient-care/policy-statements/urgent-care-centers/

MayoClinicHealthSystem.org. Emergency vs. Urgent Care: What’s the difference? Accessed on February 5, 2021. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/emergency-vs-urgent-care-whats-the-difference

Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Urgent care centers in the U.S.: Findings from a national survey. Accessed on February 5, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685126/

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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