Urgent Care or Emergency Care: What’s the Difference?

Roger Wu, MD, MBA, FACEP
July 26, 2021
3.5 mins

As an emergency physician, I often receive “curbside consults” (informal requests for advice) from family and friends — a laceration to the hand during an oyster-shucking misadventure, persistent knee pain despite all the bravado during a jiu-jitsu competition, a child vomiting after a head injury. A common question in each scenario is “Should I go to the emergency room?”  

Triage is an imperfect science. Serious medical conditions and benign illnesses share many of the same symptoms. For instance, a heart attack and acid reflux can both cause chest discomfort, and both a stroke and Bell’s palsy can manifest with a facial droop. The list goes on — enough to fill the curriculum of a four-year emergency medicine residency! Someone not trained in medicine may not always know whether to go to an urgent care clinic or an emergency room. 

Here, I’ll attempt to share a simple process for deciding where to go the next time an unexpected health issue arises; it’s the same approach I use when guiding my family and friends. After a few questions about symptoms, deciding whether you should visit an urgent care center or go quickly to an emergency department is based on two variables: timing/urgency and the tools or resources you might need. 

Although we’re often unprepared for emergencies, understanding where to seek medical assistance will help ensure that you receive the right level of care — also, knowing which concerns can be handled at an urgent care clinic will help keep emergency departments free to handle true emergencies, which benefits all of us.

When Should I Go to Urgent Care?

There are many medical conditions that require clinical evaluation and management within 24 to 48 hours but that are not life- or limb-threatening and can be treated in a more patient-friendly environment — this is when urgent care can be a great choice. (Read “Urgent Care: What Is It and What Should I Expect?” to learn more about urgent care clinics and how they can help you.)

Conditions commonly treated in an urgent care clinic include:

     • Musculoskeletal injuries, such as simple fractures or bad sprains

     • Soft tissue injuries, such as lacerations or wounds

     • Upper respiratory infections, such as bronchitis or sinusitis

     • Ear infections

     • Rashes

     • Sexually transmitted infections

From the physician’s perspective, I think about the diagnostic and management resources we have available in each care setting. This can also help patients make an informed decision about which type of care they may need. 

For urgent care, this typically includes:

     • A thorough history and physical examination

     • Point-of-care tests

     • Electrocardiograms (ECGs)

     • X-rays

     • Point-of-care ultrasounds

     • Blood draw for outpatient labs

     • Procedures such as splinting for simple types of fractures, incision and drainage of abscesses, and suturing and wound care for many lacerations.

Generally, urgent care clinics are staffed by physicians with specialty training in family medicine or emergency medicine, or by advanced practice clinicians (physician assistants and/or nurse practitioners) with prior family medicine, urgent care, or emergency medicine experience.

When Should I Go to an Emergency Department?

There are certain medical conditions that require immediate evaluation. such as heart attacks, strokes, severe trauma, and severe infections (sepsis). There are also symptoms based on your risk profile that require evaluation within six hours and access to a broader set of diagnostic tools than what is available in most urgent care settings. This might include chest pain in patients older than 40 or shortness of breath in patients with underlying chronic diseases.

Common conditions treated in an emergency room include:

     • Chest pain, especially in patients with risk factors such as older age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and family history of heart issues

     • Trouble breathing, especially if the patient is having difficulty with normal activities

     • Abdominal pain, especially in patients with risk factors such as older age

     • Weakness on one side of the body

     • Head injuries or severe trauma

Resources available at most emergency departments include:

     • A broader set of labs with most turnaround times within one hour

     • Comprehensive ultrasounds

     • Advanced imaging, such as CT scans

     • Access to specialty consultations for urgent needs

     • Access to inpatient care if hospitalization is required 

Wrapping It Up

For many acute (new) conditions that require a clinical evaluation and management within 24 to 48 hours, a visit to an urgent care clinic — where there is access to a qualified provider, point-of-care tests, X-rays, and certain procedures — may be a good start. In some instances, your provider at the urgent care clinic may recommend an evaluation in an emergency department, based on your risk profile.  

For higher-risk symptoms that require attention within six hours and access to advanced imaging, urgent specialty consultations, or hospitalization, a hospital emergency department is more appropriate. 

I hope this helps clarify the capabilities and limitations of urgent care and emergency care. At Carbon Health, our providers are standing by to provide urgent care services both in-person and virtually, with same-day appointments, walk-in availability, and evening and weekend accessibility. Learn more about Carbon Health.

Disclaimer: The information, including but not limited to text, graphics, and images, and all other material contained on this site are for general information purposes only. Carbon Health makes no representation and assumes no responsibility for the accuracy of information contained on or available through this site, and such information is subject to change without notice. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read or accessed through this web site. If you are having a medical or mental health emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. 

Roger Wu, MD, MBA, FACEP

Roger Wu, MD, MBA, FACEP, is a board-certified emergency medicine physician and Carbon Health’s National Medical Director. Before joining Carbon Health, he served as an emergency department medical director at TeamHealth, where he was awarded Medical Director of the Year. As a practicing physician and leader, he enjoys living at the intersection of medicine, leadership, technology, and systems design.