Emergency Care vs. Urgent Care: What’s the Difference?

It’s Saturday night, and your child has a fever. Or you are having chest pain. Or you are bleeding from a serious injury. Where should you go for medical care: the emergency department at your local hospital or the urgent care center down the street?

Always call 911 if you think you may be experiencing a medical emergency, such as chest pain or severe bleeding. For other, less-severe medical problems, the landscape can be a little confusing.

Emergency Care

Hospital emergency departments are prepared for every kind of medical emergency, including heart attacks, stroke, motor vehicle crashes, psychiatric emergencies, and other life-threatening conditions. Emergency departments are available 24 hours a day, every day of the year and have special equipment and highly qualified physicians, physician assistants and nurses to respond to every kind of adult or childhood medical emergency. Most are staffed by physicians with specialized training and board certification in emergency medicine.

Some reasons to seek emergency care include: loss of consciousness, severe shortness of breath, facial drooping or weakness in an arm or leg, allergic reactions, chest pain, bleeding that does not stop after 10 minutes, head trauma, seizures, poisoning, severe reaction to insect bites, major broken bones, coughing or vomiting blood, persistent vomiting and suicidal or homicidal feelings.

Emergency physicians have a federal mandate to care for patients regardless of their ability to pay, so you will never be turned away based on your health insurance status.

Urgent Care

Urgent care centers are an option for common medical problems when a physician’s office is closed or unable to provide an appointment. These facilities can be a convenient option to treat minor illnesses and injuries—such as fever, nausea, rashes, and minor bone fractures–often offering extended hours in the evenings and weekends. Many centers also do physical exams, vision and hearing screening, and lab tests and X-rays.

However, urgent care centers are not a substitute for emergency care as they don’t have the same equipment or trained staff that emergency departments have.

Urgent care centers do not have a federal mandate to treat patients, regardless of their ability to pay. Most accept health insurance but require payment at the time of service.

If you have a serious illness or injury, you should go to the closest emergency department. If you go to an urgent care center with a serious illness or injury, you will be sent or transported to a hospital emergency department, which will delay your care.

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