Urgent Care Facilities Vs. Emergency Rooms

Urgent care facilities have become more common across the United States. These small, “Doc in a Box” outlets have doctors, nurse practitioners and other medical staff on hand at all times. They also usually have a small array of equipment that can help treat medical needs.


The rise of urgent care facilities has made it possible for people to have a faster, less expensive option than going to the emergency room if they have a medical issue during hours when their primary physician’s office is closed or unavailable.

Urgent care facilities can be an excellent alternative, but don’t have the same complex equipment and skill set that emergency rooms possess. With both options available, it can be confusing to decide whether you should go to an emergency room or an urgent care facility. We’ll go through the advantages and disadvantages of each, and discuss what symptoms you should automatically go to the emergency room for.

Urgent Care Facilities

urgent-care-02Urgent care facilities are best for health issues that you would normally go see a primary care doctor for, but can’t because they’re not open or not available. There are plenty of health issues that need to be treated right away, but aren’t life threatening. These are the things that you should go to the urgent care facilities for.

Urgent care is convenient, with much shorter waiting times and less congestion than the emergency room. In addition, urgent care is generally far less expensive, from one third to half as much as the ER on average.

However, urgent care does not have the complex and life-saving equipment and staff that can only be found at the emergency room. If loss of life or limb is possible from a health issues, definitely go to the emergency room.

  • Fever
  • Ear pain
  • Painful urination or bladder infection
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Minor trauma such as a common sprain or shallow cut
  • Cough, cold, bronchitis
  • Asthma or emphysema flare up
  • Sinus infection
  • Back or joint pain
  • Migraine

Click here to read more about urgent care and when to go

Emergency Rooms

urgent-care-03When it’s a matter of life or death, or you even suspect a serious and urgent health issue, it’s always better to be safe than sorry and go to the emergency room.

Emergency rooms are fully staffed and equipped to be ready any injury or health issue that can arise. They are highly trained to prioritize urgency and take action to save lives. When someone’s life or well-being is in serious and immediate danger, don’t hesitate to go to the emergency room.

If you notice any of the follow symptoms, the emergency room is where to go:

  • Heart attack symptoms: chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, sweating, lightheadedness, shoulder or jaw pain
  • Uncontrolled bleeding or major trauma (deep cut or wound)
  • Sudden or severe abdominal pain that won’t go away
  • Coughing or vomiting blood
  • Significant difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Stroke symptoms: loss of vision, sudden weakness or inability to move, difficulty talking, confusion, loss of sensation in body, worst headache of your life type headache
  • Accidental overdose or swallowing of potentially poisonous substance
  • Passing out/fainting
  • Seizure
  • Head injury (being hit in the head, falling and hitting head)
  • Changes in mental status, such as confusion”

Here’s another helpful article on urgent care versus the emergency room

When to Call an Ambulance

urgent-care-04Sometimes, it’s not safe to even drive to the emergency room. In very urgent situations, you’ll need an ambulance to safely get the treatment necessary. It’s not just about getting to the hospital quickly either, as the ambulance staff has equipment and training to take life-saving action along the ride.

If you are alone and feel that you have a serious health emergency that needs immediate treatment or prevents you from driving, do not hesitate to call 9-1-1 and get an ambulance.

If you’re with someone who is showing signs of a medical emergency and can’t make a call themselves, call an ambulance for them. If you suspect a head or neck injury, never move the person yourself! Always call the trained medical professionals to do this.

The American College of Emergency Physicians has four guideline questions for when to call an ambulance. If any of the answers are yes, make the call.

  1. Does the condition seem life threatening?
  2. Could it get worse and become life threatening on the way to the hospital?
  3. Will you get delayed in traffic?
  4. If you try to move the person, will it likely lead to more harm?

Click here for some great information on when to call an ambulance and what to expect.

Making the Right Decision

Weighing the severity of your health issue with the potential cost and convenience difference between urgent care and the ER could be complicated but really boils down to one simple thing. Trust your instincts. If you feel like you need the emergency room (including an ambulance to get there), don’t wait. For everything else, you can go to urgent care and save on time and money.

PrairieStar health center offers same day appointments via walk in Urgent Care Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM until 5:00 PM. We have EKG, x-ray and lab services available. We can sew up minor cuts/wounds and have materials to make casts. We also have a variety of in-house medications for certain urgent conditions. We also have dental services. The advantage of going to Urgent Care at your doctor’s office is that we know you. We have your medical records and frequently your doctor is available to consult with the urgent care provider. If you choose to come to PrairieStar for Urgent Care, we will check to see if your doctor has an opening and perhaps you would be able to see your doctor directly. If not, we have excellent Urgent Care practitioners who can see you in your time you need.

If you have more any questions as to what types of things would be best suited for urgent care or for the emergency room, make sure you answer those questions before a health issue happens! Be prepared. I’d be happy to answer any and all questions for you, feel free to reach out and comment here, reach me through social media or give me a call! The more you know, the better decision you’ll be able to make come emergency time.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy November,

Dr. Johnson.