When should a patient choose urgent care over the emergency room?

Illnesses and injuries happen unexpectedly in life. One moment everything is fine and then the next you experience a painful injury or a debilitating disease. If this happens, then you’ll need to make a critical decision: to choose urgent care or an emergency room (ER) for care.

While most patients assume that they’ll need an ER for all sudden or unexpected medical situations, it helps an individual to know the key differences between urgent care and emergency care.

Ultimately, urgent care is ideal for patients that need medical attention ASAP but don’t require full-blown emergency care. Patients experiencing a life-threatening medical emergency should go to the nearest ER immediately and without hesitation.

However, many patients associate urgent care with emergency care and go to an ER for urgent medical situations. At the same time, a patient may mistake their medical emergency as an urgent medical need and go to an urgent care center instead of the ER.

So when should a patient go to either an urgent care center or an ER? At AFC Denver, we have highlighted the key medical situations to help patients determine when to use either center.

Additionally, patients that effectively use urgent care centers can experience significant benefits in the form of lower healthcare costs and less time spent receiving medical care.

Patients should choose urgent care for minor but immediate healthcare needs and preventive care

 urgent care patient receiving knee pain treatment

The basic definition of an urgent care center is a clinic or facility that provides minor injury or illness treatment outside of a traditional medical institution like a hospital, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).

Urgent care centers are required not to advertise themselves as an emergency care provider, says ACEP, but provide a variety of services similar to an ER. Urgent care centers are designed to provide many preventive and immediate services for patients without the need for an ER wait. The list of common treatments and services provided at an urgent care center include:

  • On-site board-certified physicians to administer and coordinate care
  • Treatment for sprains, bone breaks, muscle pain, and joint pain
  • Treatment of skin irritations and sunburns
  • X-ray and imaging services
  • Seasonal illness, allergy, and disease treatment
  • Common cold and flu symptom treatment
  • Lab and STD Testing
  • Prescription and medication management

As one can see, there are a lot of use cases for urgent care that patients sometimes go to an emergency room for. Usually, an urgent care center provides extensive preventive care services like x-rays to diagnose injuries, lab tests to evaluate illnesses, and injury treatment for many bone breaks and sprains.

A patient with a life-threatening medical emergency needs to go to the ER

 medical gurney carrying emergency care patient


Patients that experience a life-threatening medical emergency must go to their nearest ER immediately.

Unlike urgent care centers, an ER is fully equipped with the services, technology, and personnel to deliver life-saving treatment as soon as a patient needs it. The types of medical emergencies, as listed by medical experts for U.S News and World Report, that patients need an ER for include:

  • A gunshot or severe wound that won’t stop bleeding
  • A bone break that punctures the skin
  • Ingestion of toxic chemicals or substances
  • Intense asphyxiation or difficulty breathing
  • Intense chest pain that is a crushing sensation and other heart attack symptoms
  • Signs of a stroke, seizure, or sudden and severe headaches
  • An allergic reaction that has progressed into anaphylactic shock

Only an ER can provide the services to address the above emergency medical situations of a patient.

Responsible urgent care and ER use can protect you, reduce care time, and save money

satisfied medical patient at urgent care 

The main reason that a patient should effectively choose urgent over the emergency room is due to the many benefits healthcare-wise and financially for patients. An analysis of urgent care vs. ER use from debt.org found that urgent care services available in an ER are significantly more affordable and faster than their ER counterparts.

Median costs for ER services are roughly $1300 a visit while an urgent care visit is about 1/10th of that cost. In addition, urgent care visits are usually much faster than ER visits. Debt.org found that an urgent care visit is approximately 30 minutes quicker than an ER visit.

However, being a responsible patient also means knowing when to visit an ER for your most dire medical emergencies. A patient that forgoes ER care for treatment at a less-equipped medical facility could risk extreme medical complications including death.

Thankfully, most adults don’t experience medical emergencies that frequently and usually require urgent care for treatment.

So make sure you’re taking advantage of urgent care services for a myriad of treatments and services:

  • Get that x-ray for a broken or sprained joint at an urgent care center to lower costs and wait times.
  • Minor injury treatment should almost always be seen at an urgent care center because patients can walk-in and receive care in minutes.
  • Patients with minor illness discomfort such as cold and flu symptoms can get treatment and relief at an urgent care center.
  • Need an updated vaccination or physical exam. Schedule an urgent care appointment and get the services you on the same day as your schedule.

For Denver-area residents, AFC Urgent Care Denver has four convenient locations to help you get any urgent care service and avoid the long waits, or high costs, of unnecessary ER visits!

Schedule your appointment by calling one of our centers today!

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3700 Cahaba Beach Road Birmingham, AL 35242

Our Mission and Values:

Our mission is to provide the best healthcare possible in a kind and caring environment, in an economical manner, while respecting the rights of all of our patients, at times and locations convenient to the patient.

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