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What is the difference between an emergency room and urgent care?

The major difference between an emergency room (ER) and urgent care is that urgent care is really designed to take care of what a person has self-selected as a non-emergency. So, they’re designed to take care of the strains and sprains, the viruses and those types of things versus an emergency room, which is also prepared to take care of those things but can take care of the life-threatening problems as well—the heart attacks, the severe injuries, the strokes.

They overlap a little bit in that some people will go to an urgent care with what they think is a minor problem, but it turns out to be something major and they need to be transferred to an emergency department. That happens. At the same time, there are things seen in the emergency department that could have been taken care of at an urgent care center. But, again, you never know that until after the evaluation is done. It kind of falls back on the person to self-select and say, “I think that my problem is one that is not going to require the services of a hospital. I’ve got this stomach ache. I’ve some diarrhea. If they can just give me something to keep me from getting dehydrated and control my symptoms, I should be okay in the next day” versus “If I get up and walk it really, really hurts on my side here.” In which case, you’re much more worried about a serious infection and need to go to the emergency department.

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An emergency room is set up to handle emergencies. This can be anything from an earache to a life-threatening heart attack. On the other hand, urgent care takes care of issues that are expected to be handled in that visit. So urgent care most likely could handle the earache but not life-threatening events. There is some overlap because you may show up in the urgent care with chest discomfort and the doctor may decide this could be a heart attack and send you to the emergency room.
An emergency room (ER) is the best place to get treatment for severe and life-threatening conditions. If you have intense symptoms or any other condition of serious concern, heading straight to the ER may be the better option. Should you need to be admitted, you'll have saved yourself an extra trip and avoided a delay in treatment. An ER also allows access to more diagnostic tests than an urgent care center. Urgent care centers are generally not equipped to deal with major medical traumas or conditions. If your condition isn’t life threatening but you still need medical attention, an urgent care center could be a good option. These health care facilities generally offer extended hours, providing treatment when your regular doctor's office is closed. Always be sure to follow up with your primary care physician after a trip to the ER or an urgent care center.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.