The Difference Between Urgent Care, Primary Care, and Emergency

Upmc urgent care

It’s Friday evening and your child suddenly sustained an injury that looks like it could be a bone fracture. You know that you need to seek medical help for them right away, your doctor’s office isn’t open (and most likely they do not cover fracture care anyways) but it’s not the sort of life threatening incident that you should seek emergency room care for. This is where urgent clinics come in.

Urgent clinics is the ideal option when your situation requires medical attention within 24 hours, but the illness or injury is not so urgent that it warrants a visit to the emergency rooms. Many people merge the concept of urgent clinics and emergency room into one category; however, in truth, urgent clinics fills an important gap between your regular physician and emergency room:

  • Urgent clinics offers a wider range of availability than your primary care doctor.
    While a majority of family doctors are only open on weekdays during regular business hours, most urgent clinics are open on nights and weekends. Some are open around the clock, in fact. This is incredibly important factor to keep in mind if your regular physician’s hours conflict with your working hours, but you need medical attention soon.

    Furthermore, it can create a real issue if you need to medical attention right away, but your doctor doesn’t have any available appointments for several days (or weeks, or months). Urgent care clinics provide care on a walk-in basis. You do not have to wait until your doctor has an opening to get the treatment you need.

  • Urgent care can provide more services than a primary care doctor.

    Your doctor can provide care for a wide variety of needs you might have. However, most doctors are unable to take x-rays and set broken bones, provide lab services, on-site pharmaceuticals, or administer intravenous fluids. In contrast, urgent care clinics are dedicated to meeting any (non-life threatening) need you might have. In other words, your local urgent care can most likely provide all of the services we just mentioned.

    To save yourself time in a difficult situation, we recommend calling the clinic you intend to visit in advance to confirm they can provide the care you need before going in, if you are unsure.
  • Urgent care clinics provide faster service.

    Emergency rooms do not serve patients on a first-come-first-serve basis. They are designed to treat the most urgent medical need first. If you have a broken bone, it’s a big deal. You are probably in a great deal of pain and need medical attention as soon as possible. However, your medical need is not life threatening. If you’ve been waiting for care for two hours, and then stab victim who is bleeding profusely comes in, their need will take precedence (as it should).

    Urgent care clinics are not designed for life threatening emergencies; the stab victim will need to be seen at the ER. This frees the urgent care doctors to treat your broken bone much faster.
  • Urgent care visits will cost you less than emergency room visits.

    The average cost of an emergency room visit is $1,233, while the average cost of an urgent care visit is $155. You might be thinking this is because the ER treats more complicated situations, but the leading causes for visits to both ER and urgent clinics — sinusitis, upper respiratory infection, and strep throat — are typically one-quarter of the cost at urgent care than it is at ER. If you have insurance, your co-pay at an urgent clinic may be equal to your co-pay of visiting your primary physician, while your co-pay at emergency room will be significantly higher.

    On the subject of cost, one other consideration you should make is that some insurance plans do not cover your increased medical expenses of visiting an emergency room for a non-emergency. This means that if you go to the emergency room for pink eye, you could get stuck with a bill in the hundreds or thousands of dollars!

When you have a medical issue that needs care right away, an urgent care can treat your needs faster than your regular doctor, but at a fraction of the cost of an emergency room.

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