Urgent Care vs. Walk-in Clinics vs. an Emergency Room: Which Should You Choose?

Carbon Health Editorial Team
March 8, 2022
8 mins

In the United States, healthcare is offered in many different forms, depending on your needs. There are places to go for immediate treatment, while other clinical settings — including primary care clinics — are focused on your long-term health and wellness. Walk-in clinics, urgent care clinics, and emergency rooms (ERs) all provide immediate or rapid treatment without an appointment. But while there is some overlap in the services they provide, they specialize in different areas. 

(Learn more about the benefits of primary care — read “How a Primary Care Provider Can Help You.”)

In this post, we’ll explain the differences between walk-in clinics, urgent care clinics, and ERs, including what you can expect at each type of facility. If you’re ill or in pain, this knowledge will help you choose where to go, so you can get the right treatment faster.

What Are the Differences Between a Walk-in Clinic, an Urgent Care Clinic, and an Emergency Room?

Let’s start by defining each in a bit more detail.

+ What is a walk-in clinic?

The term “walk-in clinic” represents a broad category of medical facility that you can visit without an appointment. Typically, they are staffed with a combination of physician assistants and nurse practitioners. These knowledgeable medical professionals are adept at treating various mild illnesses and injuries, but walk-in clinics may not have the equipment necessary to treat life-threatening conditions.

In many cases, walk-in clinics are located in or near retail stores or pharmacies and cater to people who need a convenient way to be seen quickly. Most do not take appointments.

+ What is an urgent care clinic?

The terms “urgent care clinic” and “walk-in clinic” are often used interchangeably, but the two types of clinics are different in a few ways. Typically, walk-in clinics offer fewer services, focusing on treating people who need quick and straightforward resolutions to minor health issues. By contrast, urgent care clinics can typically deal with those issues and more serious conditions like burns or broken bones, as many have X-ray machines and other diagnostic tools. In addition, some urgent care clinics (including Carbon Health urgent care clinics) will allow you to make appointments.

It’s wise to familiarize yourself with the hours of a couple of urgent care clinics close to your home, so you’ll know where to go in case of an accident or injury. (Find a Carbon Health urgent care clinic near you.)

+ What is an emergency room?

An emergency room, or ER, is the best place to go if you’re experiencing a life-threatening injury or illness. Most emergency rooms are staffed by experts who can bring any specialist in the hospital into your treatment team if necessary.

ERs have life-saving capabilities and equipment and will be able to treat the vast majority of conditions. ER doctors prioritize patients by the seriousness of their conditions, so if you go to an ER with a painful but not life-threatening condition, you may have to wait several hours for treatment. For this reason, and to help hospitals conserve their resources, ERs should be used only for truly life-threatening problems or as a last resort. 

A clickable text ad that says "Carbon Health: Inclusive, judgment-free primary care: Book an Appointment."

What Are the Differences in How Walk-in Clinics, Urgent Care Clinics, and Emergency Rooms Are Staffed? 

Walk-in clinics, urgent care clinics, and ERs are all staffed by licensed healthcare professionals.

An ER is staffed by a team of doctors and nurses, who are led by a director of emergency medicine. This senior staff member makes sure that the department is operating well and that resources are allocated effectively. If you need to see a specialist, you may come in contact with other ER staff, such as a physiotherapist or radiographer.

An urgent care clinic is staffed with doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners (nurses who have gone through additional specialty training) and physician assistants (healthcare professionals who work interdependently with doctors and perform many vital healthcare roles).

A walk-in clinic is usually staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants. These trained professionals can treat minor conditions but tend to refer complex cases or severe injuries to other facilities.

Know Where to Go

When you’re in distress or have just experienced a traumatic injury, it can be difficult to figure out where to go for the best and fastest treatment. For many of us, cost will be a factor as well (though it should not be the first consideration). 

Of all the clinics we’ve discussed today, walk-in clinics tend to be the most affordable, since they offer very limited services. If you go to a walk-in clinic with no insurance, you can expect to pay less than $200, depending on the treatment you need. Urgent care clinics are often a little bit more expensive because they can do more for patients, and many insurance providers may cover their fees.

ERs are the most expensive option, since they provide so many resources. If you can be treated effectively elsewhere (that is, if you are not experiencing a life-threatening emergency), you will likely spend less money and time.

These are a few of the most common conditions or symptoms treated at each location.

+ When to go to a walk-in clinic

     • Unexplained rashes

     • Mild flu symptoms

     • Painful urination

     • Cough

     • Sore throat

     • Ear pain

     • Eye redness or discharge

     • Intermittent diarrhea

     • Seasonal allergies

     • Minor burns

In most cases, if you experience these symptoms and can get an appointment with your primary care doctor, they will be able to offer the best treatment (because they are familiar with your medical history). If it’s after hours or you are unable to get a timely primary care appointment, a walk-in clinic is a good alternative.

+ When to go to urgent care

You might visit an urgent care clinic for many of the same reasons you’d visit a walk-in clinic for. In addition, you can go to urgent care for treatment of:

     • Fever

     • Ongoing vomiting or diarrhea

     • Dehydration

     • Musculoskeletal injuries, such as simple fractures or bad sprains

     • Minor cuts and other soft tissue lacerations

     • Ear infections

     • Mild to moderate abdominal pain

     • Bronchitis or sinusitus

     • Strep throat

    • Rashes

    • Sexually transmitted infections

+ When to go to an ER

    • 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

    • Heart attacks (symptoms include chest pain, weakness, dizziness, and pain in the left arm or jaw)

    • Strokes

    • Choking

    • Severe burns

    • Electric shocks

    • Seizures

    • Severe headache

    • Heavy bleeding

    • A high fever lasting more than a few days

How Can I Avoid Being Surprised by Fees in a Medical Bill?

If you can get treatment at a walk-in clinic or urgent care center, your bill will be lower almost all of the time, because they offer more-limited services.

To avoid being surprised by medical bills, it’s best to confirm that any facility you go to is in your network and your insurance covers any potential treatment. A quick call to your insurance company can answer this question. Before receiving treatment, you can also ask for all potential expenses to be explained.

If you get a hefty bill because your urgent or emergency treatment was expensive or the provider was out of your network, you can always negotiate with both the provider and the insurance company. Most of the time, you will be able to work out either a more reasonable fee or a payment plan that allows you to pay the bill without jeopardizing your finances.

The best way to safeguard your health for the long term (and avoid many health issues) is to establish a trusting relationship with a primary care provider. To find a great primary care provider near you, download the Carbon Health app or visit our carbonhealth.com today.

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.