When a medical emergency strikes, it’s often confusing to understand where to go for care—emergency room or urgent care center?
If your symptoms seem too severe for a regular doctor (or your doctor’s office is closed), you may be unsure whether your health concern is urgent—meaning it can’t wait more than a few hours—or life-threatening. But knowing when to head to the ER and when to seek care elsewhere can save you time, money, and unnecessary stress.
If you have a serious medical emergency that could threaten your life, one of your limbs, or your vision, call 911 and go to an ER immediately. But if you have an urgent but non-emergency issue, going to the ER could mean getting an unnecessary bill for thousands of dollars. Below is an overview of commonly asked questions when it comes to choosing between urgent care and the ER, as well as additional considerations to remember when making a decision.
What's the difference between an urgent care center and an ER?
If you’re deciding between going to an urgent care center or an ER, it’s important to understand that there are a few key differences, including how quickly you’ll be seen, the level of care available, and how much a visit will cost.
Emergency rooms are equipped to handle catastrophic illnesses and injuries, ranging from heart attacks to gunshot wounds to injuries from a car accident. These facilities are usually affiliated with a hospital and are typically more expensive than urgent care centers. If you go to an ER for a non-emergency health concern, you may end up waiting a few hours to be seen.
Urgent care centers are same-day, walk-in clinics that can treat a range of immediate but non-life-threatening medical problems. Some also provide preventive care services, though usually at a higher cost than you’d pay at your primary care doctor’s office. Wait times tend to be shorter at urgent care, and visits for minor injuries are usually more cost effective than going to the ER.
When should you go to the ER?
In general, ER visits should be reserved for life- or limb-threatening injuries and illnesses that need advanced, immediate attention. When faced with a true medical emergency (where you or someone with you might die without prompt care), you should go to an ER.
There are some scenarios in which you should always seek care at an ER:
- Severe head or eye injuries
- Broken bones and dislocated joints, if the skin has been broken or the bone needs to be reset
- Fevers with rash
- Serious burns
- Severe abdominal, chest, or back pain
- Deep cuts
- Sudden blurred vision
- Coughing or vomiting blood
- Difficulty breathing
- Numbness in the face, arm, or leg
- Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
- Ingestion of any kind of poisonous substance
- Drug overdose
- Repeated vomiting
- Severe allergic reactions
According to a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 46% of adults who visited an ER did so because they had no other place to go. Because public hospitals are legally required to provide care to all patients, regardless of ability to pay, many people who seek care at an ER are uninsured or do not have the means to pay out-of-pocket at a doctor’s office or urgent care center.
This puts a strain on ERs and causes longer wait times for all patients, especially those without a critical need for treatment. Hospitals prioritize patients based on the urgency of their illness or injury, so if you go to an ER for anything that is not an emergency, be prepared to wait—the CDC estimates the average wait time for an ER visit to be around 2 hours.
How much does an ER visit cost?
There are many factors that impact the overall cost of an ER visit, including which hospital you go to, your insurance coverage, and what level of care you receive. If your insurance provider approves coverage for your visit, you should only pay the cost of your ER visit co-pay (on average, this ranges from $50 to $150), plus any co-insurance your plan requires (a percentage of the total costs that you have to pay even afteryou’ve met your deductible).
If you go to the ER and you don’t have insurance, you could get stuck with a huge medical bill. According to CostHelper, the average ER bill for uninsured patients ranges from $150 to $3,000. If you end up needing critical care, you could be billed $20,000 or more.
And if you need an ambulance ride? Consumerist says that you can expect to add, on average, $1,200 to your medical bill.
If you don’t have insurance, be sure to let the ER doctors or receptionist know that you’re shouldering the cost of the visit yourself. They may be able to substitute brand name prescriptions for generic ones and waive certain fees.
Whether or not you have insurance coverage, don’t forget to ask if the ER offers an interest-free payment plan—this can give you more time to pay and ensure you don’t have to go into credit card debt or take out a personal loan to cover medical costs.
When should you go to urgent care?
Most medical needs that require immediate care but are not life or limb-threatening can be treated at an urgent care center. This is especially true if you’ve had a gradual onset of symptoms or if you already know the diagnosis and that you need treatment, but can’t get a same-day appointment with your primary care doctor.
Injuries and illnesses that are commonly treated at urgent care centers include:
- Mild to moderate pain
- Ear infections
- Pink eye
- Cold and flu
- Mild asthma attacks
- Cuts that may require stitches
- Sprains and fractures
- Broken wrists, hands, ankles, or foot (as long as the skin is not broken and the bone does not need to be reset)
- Urinary tract infections
- Animal or insect bites
- Persistent diarrhea or vomiting
- Sore throat
- Fever (without a rash)
- Mild burns
- Nose bleeds
Many urgent care centers provide preventive care services in addition to urgent care. If possible, you should see your doctor first, or contact both your doctor and the urgent care center to see where you can get the same procedure for a lower cost with your insurance. Some of the preventive care services that urgent care centers can provide include:
- Vaccinations and flu shots
- Drug screening
- Well-baby checkups
- School, work, and yearly physicals
- Pap smears
How much does an urgent care visit cost?
In general, urgent care is a much more cost-friendly option for anyone who isn’t experiencing a life-threatening injury or illness. If you’d normally see your primary care doctor but they aren’t available, or you can’t wait for an appointment due to the severity of your symptoms, going to urgent care is a good choice.
However, it’s important to note that very few urgent care centers are open 24 hours a day, and hours of operation vary widely across the country. You can use Amino to find an urgent care center that's open and takes takes your insurance. Just use the search above.
If you have health insurance, you should only have to pay the co-pay, a flat amount that you pay at the time of your visit, required by your insurance. Amino shows cost estimates for visits at urgent care centers in our database, but you can also check with your insurance to find out what your urgent care co-pay is—many times it is different than what you would pay to see a primary care doctor or a specialist. Most urgent care centers accept all major insurance providers. However, it’s worth using Amino (above) to find out which locations near you take your insurance before you have an urgent medical need.
If you don’t have insurance, you may face much higher costs—including the cost of the visit itself as well as any charges for the treatment you receive.