Urgent Care vs. Primary Care vs. an Emergency Room: What’s the Difference?

Carbon Health Editorial Team
March 4, 2022
8 mins

When you’re in pain or trying to help a loved one who needs medical attention, your first thought is getting care quickly. But going to the wrong place could mean that it will take you longer to reach the right provider and get the right kind of care. So it’s helpful to understand the differences between urgent care and primary care, as well as when you should go to an emergency room (ER). 

(Learn more about primary care in “How a Primary Care Provider Can Help You.”) 

Although there is some overlap, these three types of facilities provide different services — in this blog post, we’ll discuss what they are and how to choose where to go care. 

What Is the Difference Between an Urgent Care Clinic, an Emergency Room, and a Primary Care Clinic?

No one wants to cope with a medical condition or an injury and not know where to go for treatment. Let’s break down the differences between primary care, urgent care, and an ER.

+ Primary Care

Primary care is key to your long-term health, and cultivating a trusting relationship with your primary care provider is essential. However, because these providers typically keep specific hours and require appointments (usually scheduled days or even weeks in advance), they are not the most appropriate option for an urgent medical matter. 

In addition, primary care clinics are equipped with diagnostic equipment and may not have all the life-saving equipment that an urgent care clinic or an emergency room has.

Your primary care provider will help you holistically manage your long-term health. An ongoing relationship with a compassionate provider is a cornerstone of maintaining wellness — just as important as good nutrition and staying physically active. Your provider can help connect you to specialists, coordinate your care, manage chronic conditions and take steps to reach your health goals.

Clickable text ad that says: Carbon Health: Primary care that meets you where you are. Book a virtual or in-person appointment.

+ Urgent Care

Many people don’t understand the differences between urgent care and primary care. A commonly asked question is “Is urgent care considered primary care?” The answer is no — urgent care is not an appropriate substitute for primary care.

Urgent care clinics are great for medical issues that need to be treated right away but are not life-threatening. Some commons reasons to go to urgent care include:

     • Sprains and strains

     • Mild breathing difficulties

     • Would repair (such as a cut that requires stitches) 

     • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea 

     • Unexplained rashes

     • Urinary tract infection

These are issues that require timely treatment but do not necessitate a visit to an emergency department. Most urgent care clinics operate on a walk-in basis and are open longer hours than primary care clinics. Most of the time, you do not need an appointment for urgent care, although you may need to wait a little while to be seen if it’s busy.

+ Emergency Room

An emergency room is the department of a hospital that provides crisis care for trauma, severe illnesses, or serious injuries. You should go to the emergency room only if you cannot reasonably get treatment anywhere else.

While the emergency room offers myriad life-saving treatments, it should be used only in the case of a true emergency, both to help save resources for people who need it most and because care at an ER can be quite expensive. 

Go to an emergency room (or call 911) for life-threatening issues such as:

     • Choking

     • Inability to breathe

     • Head injury

     • Injury to the neck or spine, especially it causes loss of feeling or an inability to move

     • Severe burn or wound

     • Severe chest pain or pressure

What Conditions, Illnesses, or Treatments Does Each Facility Offer?

To help you make the best decision for your health, it may help to better understand the conditions that each of these health facilities is best equipped to treat

+ Primary Care

Primary care is invaluable in caring for a person’s long-term health. If you have a chronic or recurring condition such as diabetes, your primary care provider can help coordinate care and ensure that nothing is missed. 

When you develop a trusting relationship with your primary care provider, they can guide you through any health concerns and provide necessary diagnostic and preventive care, to keep you healthy long-term.

+ Urgent Care

While a primary care doctor should monitor chronic conditions and long-term illnesses, there are occasionally times where a symptom flare-up or injury needs to be treated quickly. In these situations, it makes sense to go to an urgent care clinic. There, healthcare providers can evaluate you effectively. You might visit an urgent care clinic for common services like flu shots, stitches, or simple diagnostic tests for illnesses like strep throat, UTIs, or anemia.  

+ Emergency Room

An emergency room is, first and foremost, a site for people who are experiencing extreme or life-threatening conditions. If you are experiencing intense pain, have had a recent trauma, or are having trouble breathing, you should go to an emergency room.

Some of the most common illnesses, traumas, or injuries treated at an emergency room include:

     • Skin infections

     • Broken bones

     • Severe abdominal pain

     • Moderate to severe sprains

     • Foreign objects in the body (this covers anything from choking to gunshot wounds)

     • Cuts and lacerations with excessive bleeding

What Are the Cost Differences Between Primary Care, Urgent Care, and an Emergency Room?

While cost shouldn’t be the most important consideration when you’re picking where to seek treatment, it’s undeniably a factor for many people.

Since primary care facilities have a good reputation for accepting a wide variety of insurance plans, most people assume that they are the least expensive option for healthcare. Plus, many people’s healthcare insurance plans entitle them to a low co-pay or yearly checkups with no out-of-pocket cost. Patients usually know in advance whether their doctor will accept their insurance, so there’s less worry about unexpected costs or having to pay out-of-pocket.

Since urgent care clinics are open later and allow patients to walk in without an appointment, an urgent care visit tends to be more expensive than a primary care visit. However, urgent care clinics are far less costly than visiting an emergency room. 

The cost of an ER visit depends significantly on which tests are ordered, how much time you spend there, and what your existing insurance will cover. While emergency rooms are an excellent place to be when you’re really sick or injured, their fees can be high.

What Should I Consider Before Deciding Where to Seek Care?

Deciding between a visit to a primary care clinic, an urgent care clinic, or an emergency room can be overwhelming. While location and cost are both relevant factors, the most crucial consideration every time should be how sick you feel and what symptoms you’re experiencing.

If you are in severe pain, have a broken bone, or are experiencing life-threatening symptoms such as breathing difficulties, chest pain, or an inability to stay conscious, you should go to an emergency room right away. Call an ambulance if you cannot drive yourself or need to get there quickly.

If you feel ill or have mild symptoms such as a fever, ear pain, diarrhea, a sore throat, nausea, vomiting, or a sprain or cut that cannot wait more than a day to be treated, head to your local urgent care clinic. The physicians there can help get you treated faster.

If you have a health concern that doesn’t feel urgent or is not causing you pain, book an appointment with your primary care provider. Their knowledge of your overall health may help provide a more accurate diagnosis.

Not sure who to call if you need to seek out urgent care or visit your primary care provider? Carbon Health can help match you with excellent healthcare options near you. Visit the Carbon Health website or download our app to learn more.

Carbon Health Editorial Team

The Carbon Health Editorial Team is a group of writers, content creators, and thought leaders who are here to empower you to take charge of your health.