ER vs. Urgent Care: What’s the Difference?

When you need medical advice fast, you don't want to spend time debating whether urgent care or the emergency room is best. Learn the difference now so you can act fast later.

Checking medical tests. Serious doctor and patient. Doctor holding tablet and talking with a patient in the hospital. Close-up view of the hands and the tablet.Maksym Poriechkin/ShutterstockWhen you’re feeling sick and need help fast, the last thing you want to do is take time debating whether the emergency room or urgent care is best. There are key differences between the two, and choosing wrong could cost you time, money—and even your health.

Urgent care centers treat many of the same minor injuries and illnesses as your family doctor—including respiratory infections, allergies, cuts, and sprains—but with the convenience of longer hours and walk-in appointments. The ER can treat those conditions too, but you’ll likely end up waiting three to four hours to be seen, as opposed to 30 to 60 minutes in an urgent care clinic, says Viraj Lakdawala, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at NYU Langone Health. Copays at ERs also tend to be more expensive—don’t miss these other 50 secrets hospitals don’t want to tell you.

Despite the quick turnaround, you should skip urgent care and go straight to the hospital if you suspect something life-threatening, such as a heart attack, stroke, or trauma. If you mention something like chest pain, the urgent care doctor will likely send you to the ER anyway—but you won’t be off the hook for paying, says Dr. Lakdawala. “You’ll get billed twice and spend a lot more time out of your day when you thought it was a minor thing,” he says. Schedule a visit stat for these 42 strange symptoms that can signal a serious disease.

For an even cheaper and more convenient option, telemedicine apps offer virtual care away from the doctor’s office. You generally schedule a 15-minute video chat with a doctor, meaning you don’t have to leave your home or the office for medical care. Once the doctor gets your story, he or she can send a prescription, offer treatment advice, or order an X-ray. The convenience factor is great for certain minor issues such as a cough, sore throat, UTI, earache, or sprain, but a virtual appointment won’t work for every condition. “Online, we have limitations for what we can treat, mainly because of the lack of physical presence,” says Dr. Lakdawala. Severe abdominal pain, for instance, often requires lab work, and head injuries might call for a CAT scan at the ER.

Of course, any medical intervention is better than none, so don’t hesitate to reach out to any emergency option if something doesn’t feel right. Even something as simple as dizziness could be a sign of a serious stroke, Dr. Lakdawala points out. “People come online thinking, ‘my problem isn’t that bad,’ when they have a surgical emergency or medical emergency,” he says. Better safe than sorry. Next, learn 60 secrets the emergency room staff won’t tell you.

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Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.