From a patient's perspective, there can seem not to be much difference between an urgent care center and an emergency room. Both are available when your primary physician may not be, such as on nights, weekends, or holidays, and on a walk-in basis with no need of an appointment. Both take care of medical problems that need to be treated immediately, and most of the time, both treat a wide variety of different injuries and ailments. But there are some important differences, and knowing what those differences are can influence which you choose when you need medical care.
A study funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) looked at the cost of a variety of different emergency room visits. After compiling all of the data, researchers found that the average cost of an emergency room visit was $1233. Patients with insurance may pay less out of pocket, but uninsured patients, while they may be able to avoid paying on the spot, will end up being billed the entire amount.
By contrast, the average urgent care cost falls between $71 and $125 for an uninsured patient, and co-pays for insured patients fall between $35 and $100 depending on the insurance company. Urgent cares may also be able to reduce costs for uninsured patients by using generic medications instead of name brands, and the cost of x-rays and diagnostic tests is cheaper in urgent cares as well. Uninsured patients who don't want to get hit with a large bill in a few weeks will likely have better luck visiting an urgent care clinic.
Most people who have been to any emergency room can testify to the long wait times they've experienced. It's a problem with many causes, including the tendency of some patients to use the emergency room as a substitute for primary care. Regardless of the cause, though, the result is that a patient will spend about 30 minutes on average in the waiting room and 90 minutes in the treatment room when they go in for emergency room care.
Urgent care centers typically have shorter wait times and treat and discharge patients more quickly. This is partly because they are simply less widely used than emergency rooms. Also, since most urgent care cases do not require hospital admittance, the staff can simply treat and discharge, whereas emergency room staff often have to take the additional time to admit patients to the hospital.
While the lower costs and shorter wait times make urgent cares a more attractive choice for many patients, it's important to realize that there are times when an emergency room is really a better choice. For example, if you're having heart attack symptoms, such as chest pain, difficulty breathing, or severe abdominal pain, skip the urgent care and go straight to the ER. If you arrive at an urgent care displaying symptoms of a condition like a heart attack or stroke, you'll be transferred to the nearest ER, but time is of the essence in those situations. The longer it takes to get to the ER, the more likely it is that you'll suffer more severe or permanent damage.
Another thing to consider is that not all urgent cares treat all conditions. Some urgent care centers specialize in a particular field of medicine, like orthopedics, pediatrics, or gynecology. As you can imagine, an urgent care that specializes in orthopedics may not be the best place to go if you have the flu, though it can be a great place to go if you suspect you've broken a bone. Before you head to an urgent care center in your area, check to see if they provide general care or specialized care.
When you know the differences between an emergency room and an urgent care center, you'll be better able to make the right healthcare choices for yourself and your family. Most importantly, if you have a medical problem that you suspect needs immediate attention, don't wait. Follow your instincts and get care somewhere.