Urgent Care

Emergency Room vs. Urgent Care: When to Go, Differences, Costs, Treatment

Spencer Lee
Spencer Lee13 Apr 2022

Emergency Room vs. Urgent Care: When to Go, Differences, Costs, Treatment

Deciding between seeking care at the emergency room versus an urgent care clinic can seem confusing, but it doesn’t need to be. You should only go to an ER if you are experiencing an imminent, serious, and/or life-threatening medical complication. Alternatively, you should go to an urgent care clinic if you are experiencing mild symptoms that do not pose an immediate threat to your survival. 

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When to Go to the ER vs. Urgent Care

The decision to visit the ER versus an urgent care clinic should largely depend on your symptoms and situation. While an emergency can provide all the services that an urgent care clinic can, it may be more cost-effective to visit an urgent care center for medical care if you believe it is suitable. 

ER’s are meant for serious, life-threatening medical issues that pose an immediate threat to survival. This includes symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath. If you are doubting whether your medical issue merits the level of care offered at an emergency room, you should trust your gut. If personal instinct tells you that it is serious, don’t hesitate to go to the nearest emergency room. 

While it may be clear that emergency care is required, whether or not to call 911 adds another layer of complexity to accessing care. If your medical condition may prevent you from traveling to the emergency room safely and/or quickly  (e.g. severe bleeding or fainting), you should call 911 immediately and wait for an ambulance to arrive. It can seem intimidating to call 911, but for many medical emergencies, an ambulance and paramedics can help save an individual’s life. 

Urgent care is not meant for emergency care. Many people visit emergency departments without realizing that urgent care clinics are an option merely because their doctors’ offices are closed. However, urgent care clinics can oftentimes treat medical issues that require immediate attention but are not true emergencies. Some of these issues include minor cuts that may require stitches and low-grade fevers. 

We outline a few of the symptoms that necessitate emergency or urgent care below. 

When to Visit the Emergency Room vs. ER, by Symptoms

Emergency RoomUrgent Care
Shortness of breathFevers and colds
Chest pain, left arm pain, left jaw painVomiting and nausea
Serious burns and cuts that will not stop bleeding or will not closeDiarrhea
Severe allergic reactionsStrains or minor bone breaks
Stroke symptomsMinor cuts
Changes in mental statusMinor asthma attacks
Loss of consciousnessPain with Urination
Multiple injuries or possible injuries in the ribs, skull, face, or pelvis 
Pregnant and have vaginal bleeding or pelvic/abdominal pain 

*Please note this is not a comprehensive list. The symptoms described above are merely meant to serve as a framework to help you decide which medical location is better suited to help you. 

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Differences Between the ER and Urgent Care

The difference between emergency and urgent care can certainly be confusing since both terms imply that medical problems need to be addressed quickly and effectively. However, there are distinct differences in the level of care and services offered at each of these medical locations. 

Urgent care clinics fill a demand in our healthcare system when individuals become sick or injured but cannot visit a primary care physician due to unavailabilities or cannot wait for an appointment. In other words, urgent care clinics are for when an individual’s doctor cannot see them for a serious, non-life-threatening medical issue, such as a persistent mild fever. In general, urgent care clinics are open slightly beyond regular working hours, making them convenient if you would normally see your doctor for a non-emergency medical situation but cannot due to a closed office. 

Emergency rooms should only be used for life-threatening medical emergencies. The purpose of an ER is to fulfill the need for more serious medical attention that a primary care provider or an urgent clinic cannot provide. This includes complex medical procedures, such as surgery, that many primary care doctors are unable to perform due to a lack of training and resources in an average doctor’s office. Most ER’s are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Therefore, if you are in a true emergency, you should never have to worry about accessing care due to closures. 

Urgent Care Cost vs. ER Cost

With ER’s generally costing more than urgent care clinics, the decision you make can be extremely important in terms of how much money you spend. You will pretty much always spend a lot more money going to an emergency room. However, the actual out-of-pocket costs will depend on several factors, including, but not limited to: medications, injections/IVs, lab tests, and X-rays.

Mira’s research indicates that the average urgent care visit costs $71-$125, while the average ER visit can cost upwards of $1300. Again, the actual price you pay out-of-pocket may exceed these costs based on the level and type of care you receive.

There tends to be an overlap in the type of care offered at urgent care centers and emergency rooms. However, the same type of care can cost vastly different amounts at these two healthcare locations. Outlined below are the prices for a few of the most commonly treated conditions at ER’s and urgent care clinics. 

Price Differences for Common Procedures at ER’s and Urgent Care

ServiceUrgent Care CostEmergency Room Cost
Minor fracture$180 to $240$1,000+
STD testing$216 to $360$150 to $360 per test
Sprains$180 to $240$1,000+
Vaccinations$40 to $70Depends on the vaccine
Stitches$150 to $350$500
Blood work$250+$1,500
X-rays$200+$100 to $1,100

Evidently, the same treatments can be vastly more expensive at emergency rooms than they are at urgent care clinics.

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Treatment at an Emergency Room

Treatment at the ER is in accordance with one of five levels of care. While level 1 encompasses the most minor problems treated at an ER, level five represents some of the most severe treatments that an emergency room can provide. Outlined below is a description of these five levels of care. 

Emergency Room Care Costs by Levels

LevelDescriptionTypical Cost
1Typically a limited, minor problem that will run its course on its own.$150
2A limited, minor problem with no risk for death, and is not likely to permanently alter a patient’s health status.$400
3A problem where risks are low, and full recovery is expected, but there may be some small risk of problems developing if the patient doesn’t receive treatment.$650
4A severe problem that requires urgent evaluation, but doesn’t pose a threat to life or to physical function; without treatment, there is a high chance of extreme impairment.$870
5An immediate, significant threat to life or physiologic functioning.$1,450

The average wait time at an ER is approximately 2.4 hours. When you arrive at the ER, you will first speak with a nurse who will ask you about your problem and collect your vitals. If the nurse deems your health issue to be severe enough, you will see a doctor immediately; if not, you may be asked to wait while people who are more seriously ill are prioritized. 

While receiving treatment in the ER, a team of doctors and nurses will care for you. It is normal to undergo several tests, such as X-rays, blood work, and others tests. You should let your doctor know immediately if your condition changes. 

Based on any tests and a doctor’s evaluation, you may be admitted to the hospital for further treatment and observation. Alternatively, it may be possible to be treated directly in the ER without being admitted into the hospital. In either circumstance, you should follow your doctor’s instructions carefully when you are allowed to leave the hospital. 

Treatment at an Urgent Care Clinic

Treatment at an urgent care clinic differs slightly from that at an emergency room. Many urgent care clinics have online check-in processes, allowing you to save time and expedite your medical care. Accordingly, the wait time at urgent care clinics is far less than at emergency rooms, averaging at 15-45 minutes for walk-in patients. 

During your check-in process, either online or in-person, you should clearly identify the medical issue you are facing. The staff will collect basic information about you and will ask you to wait in the lobby if your condition is not severe. When a medical provider is ready to see you, you will be called into a room where you can explain what is happening to you. Herein, your medical provider, who may not necessarily be a doctor, will determine the best course of treatment. This can include being treated at the urgent care clinic, being prescribed medicine, or being taken to an emergency room if your condition is severe enough. As with all medical appointments, you should be honest with your provider and listen to their instructions carefully upon discharge. 

Bottom Line

You should only go to an ER when you are facing a life-threatening medical emergency, and you should only go to an urgent care clinic when you are facing non-emergency medical issues that still require immediate attention. Regardless of your decision, accessing medical care can be expensive. Mira can help simplify your bills by providing you with an all-inclusive urgent care option for just $45 per month.  

Spencer Lee

Spencer is a Public Health & Biology undergraduate student at New York University.