What’s the Difference Between an Urgent Care Center and an Emergency Room?

With the recent rise of urgent care centers in America, there seems to be some confusion about their purpose. To many people, urgent care centers seem like a cheaper version of an emergency room. Of course, this is not the case. In fact, urgent care centers are much closer to your general physician’s office than they are to an emergency room. The key difference lies in the name. An emergency room is for emergencies, things that need to be treated right away or they will lead to disfigurement and death. An urgent care center is for conditions that need to be treated quickly, but won’t likely lead to greater problems if you don’t immediately get them treated. The differences between them are nuanced but important to know. While there won’t be an issue if you go to one or the other for the wrong reasons, you will have a better experience if you know what separates them.

Urgent Care Center vs Emergency Room

The first thing that should be clarified is that the common idea that urgent care centers and emergency rooms are somehow in competition is false. There is no “urgent care center vs emergency room.” The two are not competitors but instead act in tandem to treat people when they need it, and how they need it. Urgent care centers and emergency rooms are more of a tag team. If you take an urgent care problem to an emergency room, they may treat you or will direct you to the closest urgent care center. If you take an emergency room problem to an urgent care center, they will have precautions in place to help relieve symptoms while an ambulance comes to take you to an urgent care center.

With that, we come to one of the first differences between an urgent care center and an emergency room: ambulances. EMTs will not take you to an urgent care center because that wouldn’t be the proper use of either service. You will never need to rush to an urgent care center. The illnesses and injuries that are treated at an urgent care center can wait sometime before being dealt with. In contrast, emergency rooms handle things that need to be dealt with right away. For example, a heart attack needs to be dealt with immediately. An emergency room is well equipped to handle a heart attack, while an urgent care center will not. Again, if you go to an urgent care center because of a heart attack (purposely or otherwise), they will help to treat the heart attack however they may be able to while waiting for an ambulance.

Another key difference is that emergency rooms are equipped to perform surgery, while an urgent care will not be. Because of this, an urgent care cannot treat some injuries, like a broken arm. If you have a broken arm, leg, or other major bone, you should go to an emergency room (by ambulance or otherwise). Urgent care centers can, however, treat injuries that are similar to a broken bone but do not need surgery. For example, an ankle sprain can be treated at an urgent care center.

This same concept can be applied almost across the board: an urgent care center can treat minor emergencies, while anything severe should be treated at an emergency room. First degree burns can be treated at an urgent care center, for example, while second degree and third-degree burns should be treated at an emergency room.

Urgent care centers also treat a vast array of illnesses that can not be treated an emergency room. If you have a high fever but no rash, you should be on your way to an urgent care center. The same is true of vomiting, painful urination, and diarrhea.

You can expect a longer waiting time at an urgent care center, as well. An emergency room is ready to handle things right as they come, while urgent care center patients can often wait some time before being treated. While this is inconvenient, it does help to reduce the price. It also prevents extremely long waiting times at an emergency room, because urgent care centers treat things that emergency rooms often have to push back. Generally, urgent care centers can be thought of as a 24/7 version of your doctor’s office, while an emergency room is a surgery room with a high turnover. The differences between what can be treated at an urgent care center and an emergency room break down into more than a few rules, though, so we’ll discuss this topic further in an upcoming article.

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