Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room: What’s the Difference?

By:  Cruz Bernal, M.D.

An illness or injury appears at any time during the day, and is always unplanned.  An accidental cut while making dinner, or a child’s injury on the sports field, may occur after 5:00 p.m. when your regular physician’s clinic is closed.  You will have to make a decision where to go for your medical treatment and it helps to understand the different levels of care provided at medical facilities.

When you’re sick or injured, it is important to know the difference between an urgent medical issue, and an emergent condition requiring an emergency room hospital visit.  For example, there are urgent situations that aren’t emergencies, such as a minor sprain, wound needing stitches, flu symptoms, or a sinus infection.  These conditions may not need treatment right away, but should be evaluated within 24-hours and could be treated at an urgent care center.  Then there are situations where you should go straight to an emergency room as soon as possible.  Knowing the difference can help you get the right care when you need it.

Emergency rooms are meant for true medical emergencies.  They can handle trauma, admit for surgical procedures, and treat other life-threatening situations.  Hospitals have an emergency room that’s open 24-hours a day, seven days a week, specifically to treat emergent issues including chest pain, severe trauma, uncontrolled bleeding, and other major medical conditions.  Patients that present to an emergency room are seen based on their emergent medical condition, with persons having less serious medical issues potentially waiting longer to be seen.   If your condition isn’t serious or life-threatening, you may choose an urgent care center that would be less expensive, have a shorter wait time, and offer clinical attention to your urgent medical needs.  Choosing an urgent care center affiliated with a hospital system is even better, as the center has physician specialists available for transfers to a higher level of care if required.

Urgent care centers are usually open after your regular physician’s office is closed, and provide extended hours until midnight.  Urgent care centers are not a substitute for your primary care physician, they are instead an extension of your regular physician services.  Also, urgent care centers are open on weekends to provide you medical treatment as an alternative to a long emergency room visit.  No appointments are necessary at an urgent care center and all ages are seen.  Convenient access to medical care with fast, affordable care, makes it easy to decide to find an urgent care center close to your neighborhood in case of an unplanned illness or injury.

Understanding the difference between an emergent issue and a medical condition that can be treated at an urgent care center, will save you time, money and allow you to receive the treatment needed in a quality manner.  If you need more information on what services are available at a DHR Health Urgent Care Center, please call (956) 362-5030.