Medical professionals at urgent care centers and hospital emergency rooms give people immediate medical attention. Understanding the services each offers may save people time and money if they are facing a health scare.

Around 137 million people in the United States visit a hospital emergency room every year, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Health Services Research. The authors estimate that as many as half of these people could be treated at a different facility.

The original purpose of urgent care centers was to take some of the pressure off emergency rooms.

Anyone in a life threatening or limb threatening situation needs immediate help from medical professionals at an emergency room, but urgent care medical professionals can help with many other concerns.

This article explains the difference between urgent care centers and emergency rooms. It also explains the services they offer and suggests things to consider before deciding which one to visit.

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Both emergency rooms and urgent care centers offer people the chance to see a medical professional for conditions that may need immediate attention, but the two facilities provide different levels of care.

The American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine (AAUCM) explains that while emergency room medical professionals can treat any condition, urgent care medical professionals can address less severe, acute problems.

People usually go to urgent care centers for minor injuries or when they cannot get in to see their primary care doctor. Urgent care centers are usually open beyond normal office hours, so people can see a healthcare professional about any problems that need prompt treatment but are not medical emergencies.

Although urgent care centers are often open later than doctors’ offices, they do not offer 24-hour care. Most have medical professionals available on weekends, but they may work a shorter day.

Emergency rooms, however, are open every day and night and have a variety of specialized staff available to deal with any situation.


Urgent care centers are usually cheaper.

The authors of the 2021 study state that the average cost of treatment at an urgent care center is $156, while the same treatment may cost $570 or more at an emergency room.

Costs depend on whether a person has insurance and how it covers urgent and emergency care visits.

The law requires medical professionals at emergency rooms to evaluate a person, regardless of whether they can pay for treatment. However, urgent care centers expect payment immediately and may turn people away if they cannot pay.

According to the 2021 study, there are more than 9,200 urgent care centers in the U.S., and they see around 122 million people each year.

These centers are open for longer hours than most primary care doctors’ offices, and people do not have to make appointments.

Most facilities have X-ray machines and laboratories to analyze samples from simple blood or urine tests the medical professionals may recommend.

Medical professionals at urgent care centers can also stitch up small wounds, place casts on fractured bones, provide intravenous fluids, and give immunizations.

Reasons to visit urgent care

Urgent care centers are for people who have an immediate, but not life threatening, health issue that requires prompt treatment.

Examples include:

  • simple fractures
  • sprains and strains
  • a fever without a rash
  • nausea
  • vomiting and diarrhea
  • abdominal pains
  • sexually transmitted infections
  • open wounds that might need stitches

Emergency rooms are hospital departments where medical professionals can treat people with sudden severe illnesses or injuries at any time during the day or night.

Medical professionals in an emergency room can access any or all of the resources the hospital offers, including surgical procedures, a greater range of diagnostic tests, and sometimes immediate access to physicians from different specialties.

Medical professionals in emergency rooms can quickly assess a person’s situation and give immediate treatment. This is vital for people who have had a stroke, heart attack, or serious traumatic injury.

Reasons to visit an emergency room

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) explains that people with some medical emergencies need to visit emergency rooms to access the best care as quickly as possible.

These situations include:

  • stroke
  • heart attack
  • psychiatric emergencies such as suicidal or homicidal thoughts
  • major motor vehicle accidents
  • head injuries
  • loss of consciousness
  • difficulty breathing, or severe shortness of breath
  • excessive bleeding
  • severe allergic reactions

The AAUCM explains that urgent care centers are not replacements for primary care doctors, but they can help people who need immediate medical attention and cannot get an appointment.

Medical professionals at urgent care centers can treat people for many ailments, including:

  • allergic reactions
  • upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis, influenza, and COVID-19
  • pneumonia
  • lacerations, or cuts
  • wounds or abscesses
  • simple fractures
  • vomiting and nausea
  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • migraine
  • mononucleosis
  • back pain
  • diarrhea
  • insect bites
  • conjunctivitis, or pink eye
  • ear infections
  • sinusitis
  • dehydration
  • strains and sprains

The ACEP recognizes that some medical situations need immediate attention in an emergency room. These include:

  • seizures
  • prolonged bleeding, especially if it lasts 10 minutes or longer
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain
  • poisoning, including overdoses
  • severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis
  • any fractures in which bones break through the skin or are dislocated
  • coughing or vomiting blood
  • stroke symptoms, including facial drooping, slurred speech, or sudden weakness in the arms or legs
  • serious burns
  • vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
  • head injuries, including eye injuries

According to the ACEP, people who are experiencing chest pains, severe bleeding, or symptoms of a stroke should call 911, because paramedics can start treatment before a person gets to the emergency room.

Other situations in which people need to call an ambulance include:

  • choking
  • neck and spine injuries
  • traumatic accidents, including motor vehicle accidents
  • inhalation of smoke or other noxious fumes
  • overdose of drugs or alcohol
  • severe allergic reactions
  • severe gunshot wounds

Both emergency rooms and urgent care centers offer walk-in appointments for people wanting immediate medical attention.

The 2021 study explains that more people use an emergency room for non-emergencies when doctors’ offices and urgent care centers are closed.

The Society for Academic Emergency Medicine also reminds doctors that people seeking emergency healthcare probably believe they are too sick to wait for a regular doctor’s appointment, and this is sometimes true.

Preparing for the medical visit

Doctors at urgent care centers and emergency rooms may not know anything about a person’s medical history, so it can be very helpful for a person to have that information handy.

The ACEP recommends that people wear medical jewelry if they have allergies to certain medications or have an underlying medical condition.

People should be honest about any drug or alcohol use, as it can make a big difference in evaluating their situation.

Other suggestions include bringing a list of any medications the person is taking, including vitamins and supplements, prescription medications, and over-the-counter remedies.

Urgent care centers give people the chance to see a doctor on the same day to treat serious, but not life threatening, illnesses and injuries. These centers are open for longer hours than regular doctors’ offices. They typically have X-ray equipment and the capability to run rapid swabs, or simple blood and urine tests.

Emergency rooms are hospital departments where doctors can give people immediate attention when a person is experiencing a medical emergency.

Emergency rooms are open and fully staffed 24 hours a day, every day, and doctors there have access to all hospital facilities and services, including laboratories for analyzing diagnostic tests, operating rooms, and more specialized care.