It’s common for people to think that urgent care centers and emergency rooms offer the same level of care. However, there are differences between these facilities. Understanding these differences can help you know where to go so that you can get the treatment you need.

Either is an option when your regular doctor is unavailable and you need care for an acute medical concern. But depending on your specific medical problem, urgent care may be more suitable than the emergency room, and vice versa.

If you need care but you’re not sure where to go in an emergency, here’s how urgent care and the emergency room differ. If you are having a life-threatening medical emergency, always call 911 or go straight to an emergency room.

1. Available services and treatments

Both urgent care centers (also known as walk-in clinics) and emergency room facilities are equipped to treat various types of medical conditions.

At an emergency room, you can be treated for both minor and major medical emergencies. Urgent care clinics, on the other hand, have more limited capabilities. These facilities are only equipped to evaluate and treat minor injuries and sicknesses, such as a sprained or broken bone, strep throat, urinary tract infections, or the common cold.

Similar to a hospital, urgent care centers can also provide a variety of medical services, such as some lab work, drug and alcohol screening, and routine EKG testing.

If you experience a life-threatening emergency like breathing problems, chest pains, deep lacerations, or a broken bone that sticks out from the skin, skip urgent care and go straight to an emergency room.

2. Wait times

Although some urgent care centers allow appointments, others see patients on a first come, first served basis. Keep in mind that urgent care centers that don’t accept appointments may allow online check-in, which reserves your spot in line and helps you see a healthcare provider faster.

The wait time at an urgent care center varies. Even so, you’re likely to see a doctor quicker than going to an emergency room. You might receive care in under 30 minutes at an urgent care center, yet your wait time at the emergency room could be more than an hour depending on the number of people ahead of you.

Emergency rooms give priority to those with more serious problems. If you go to the emergency room for a sore throat or a mild stomach ache, a person with a more severe problem will be seen first, even if you checked in before them. This triage practice may significantly increase your wait time at the emergency room.

3. Costs

Another difference between urgent care and the emergency room is cost. Even if your health insurance covers the cost of emergency and urgent care, you may pay more out of pocket for care administered at the emergency room.

Emergency room copays can also be more expensive than urgent care copays. And because the overall cost of care at emergency rooms tends to be more expensive, you’ll also pay more out of pocket if your health insurance plan has a deductible. (This is the portion you pay before your insurance kicks in.)

4. Hours of operation

Urgent care facilities are convenient and flexible but have varying hours of operation. Some urgent care centers may open earlier than your regular doctor’s office and remain open until the late evening or even all night.

A hospital emergency room is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The emergency room may be your only option if you require care in the middle of the night or on holidays.

Familiarize yourself with urgent care centers near your home and look specifically for centers offering 24-hour care. Check with your health insurance provider to see whether these clinics are in your plan’s network.

5. Convenience

Another difference between the urgent care center and the emergency room is convenience. Emergency rooms are scarce in some cities, so you might have to drive a distance to get to your nearest hospital. Urgent care centers are usually widespread and easily accessible.

Because some urgent care centers are located in commercial areas, you’re likely only a short drive from the nearest facility. The accessibility of these clinics can help you receive fast medical care when your regular doctor is unavailable.

Try to choose a center that’s covered under your health insurance plan. Speak with your insurance provider (or check their website) to find a nearby clinic before an emergency occurs. Make a mental note of the location of these clinics, as well as the clinic’s operating hours.

The takeaway

Urgent care centers and emergency rooms can treat a variety of health conditions. Even so, there are clear differences between both types of facilities. Whereas urgent care is fitting for minor emergencies, the emergency room is more suited for life-threatening conditions. Knowing which facility is right for your needs can potentially shorten your wait time and reduce your out-of-pocket costs.