These days, we have more good options than ever for same-day medical care. But it can be hard to know whether an urgent-care center or an emergency department is the best choice. Essentially, the differences between urgent care and emergency-department care come down to this: how immediately do you need care?
An emergency is an event so dramatic that it needs to be handled immediately, such as a heart attack or stroke. Waiting for even an hour to seek treatment during these events is disastrous. True emergencies require swift action. You should call 911 in these situations. In the emergency department, a patient who can barely breathe will receive immediate care from nurses, emergency room doctors, a respiratory therapist, and other patient care staff.
In a Few
When a person is ill, but still able to get around on her or his own without substantial pain, that person's best destination is likely urgent care. Urgent-care clinics are places where you can receive care for minor injuries or minor pain, and you're generally seen within twelve hours of an event onset. Urgent-care clinics will provide X-rays, help with minor pain, apply casts, run laboratory tests, refill prescriptions, and stitch some minor wounds. They provide some of the services that emergency rooms do, but since patients are not as sick, these services are often delivered faster. Keep in mind that it's generally best to maintain the good relationship you have with your doctor by calling her or him for advice before you head to the urgent-care clinic.
A Word About Wait Times
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the average wait time to be seen in an emergency department is close to an hour. About one-third of people seen in emergency departments stay there for more than two hours. In urgent care, visitors are often in and out sooner. Additionally, while emergency departments are typically open 24/7, urgent care tends to open at around 8 in in the morning. Many stay open as late as 9 p.m. and are open on weekends. Some urgent-care centers and emergency departments have begun allowing patients to schedule their arrival times, cutting down on crowding and wait times and improving the patient experience.
In Summary: Urgent Care vs. Emergency-Department Care
Both urgent care and emergency-department care have a place in your life and in safeguarding your health. At both places, you will see a doctor. At urgent care, doctors are usually trained in Family Medicine. This highlights an important fact: urgent care is a lot like going to see a regular doctor (which is why it's recommended that you contact your doctor first whenever you have a question or need medical advice). If you decide to try urgent care and it turns out your need is more serious, you will be transferred to a nearby hospital. But if you feel that you are truly in an emergency situation, then call 911 and get the help you need right away.