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Urgent Care Center vs. Emergency Room: How to Know Where to Go

For financial and other reasons, it’s a good idea to know if your situation warrants a visit to the emergency room or an urgent care center. Depending on what’s happening, you could save yourself a ton of time, money, and even stress by visiting the latter over the former.

That said, if your situation is significant enough that the ER is where you need to be, that’s something you should know, too.

How do you know? Is the key to go the “better safe than sorry” route each time? Or is there a better way?

Let’s look at the difference between when to go to urgent care and when to go to the emergency room. Keep in mind that these are guidelines, and in the event of a medical emergency, you should do what you feel is right.

What’s the Difference?

The major difference between an emergency room and an urgent care center is the types of treatment and equipment that are available at either facility.

Depending on your condition or situation, urgent care might not have what you need for a serious problem. Conversely, visiting the emergency room when your symptoms don’t require it (or could be taken care of at a walk-in clinic) could cost you a ton of money and cause you to wait much longer to be seen by a medical professional.

Urgent Care Centers

The general consensus is that if you have a non-urgent condition (something like the flu or a mild allergic reaction), you should be able to get that treated at an urgent care center (and if you’re looking for one, look for an urgent care near me finder). 

Emergency Room

If your condition or symptoms are extreme—signs of stroke, heart attack, etc.—then you should have been on your way to the ER ten minutes ago. The “better safe than sorry” route definitely applies when scary symptoms pop up with chest pain or brain problems.

If it’s something general, you might consider alternative forms of pain relief before you go rushing to the emergency room. The worst thing is to get there and be told you’re leaving after forty-five minutes because there isn’t an actual problem.

Other Things to Consider

The urgent care vs. emergency room debate is not black and white. Here are some other things to consider when making the choice between a walk-in and emergency care clinic.

Can You Just Go See Your Doctor?

The time of day (and week) that you’re experiencing symptoms definitely matters. If it’s possible to go see your primary care physician instead of going to either the ER or a walk-in clinic, that might be the better option. After all, your doctor knows you and your history and will be able to give you more specific advice.

If, however, you can’t get in to see your doctor within the next 24 hours, you may have to make the judgment call between the two.

What’s Your Insurance Like?

When it comes to picking health insurance, knowing the types of centers you can and cannot visit is something you should always take into account. If, for example, you have an HMO health insurance plan, you can only be covered by doctors and medical professionals in the network.

While many of the big health insurance providers like Kaiser and Cigna have their own walk-in clinics and standalone emergency rooms, you may have to drive far to get to one of them. And if you visit a walk-in clinic or emergency room outside the network, you’ll be stuck footing the entire bill. That’s no fun.

What’s It Going to Cost?

We hate that we have to bring this up, but we do. Ignoring life-threatening problems, you might want to consider cost with any trip for medical attention.

Urgent care clinics usually charge a flat-rate (around $150) to be seen for whatever your issues are. From chest pains to a bruised toe, you’ll have to pay the same fee to get medical treatment. 

With an emergency room visit, they will likely not charge you on the spot (unless it’s a co-pay of some sort). However, you’ll receive a bill in the mail that might not be covered by health insurance. Long stays in the hospital especially can get quite pricey.

136 million people went to an emergency room in 2012, for example. It is estimated that one-third of them could have had their symptoms treated at a walk-in or urgent care clinic without paying for emergency room services.

If It’s An Emergency…

One last thing to think about: if it’s an emergency, do you need to call 911? An ambulance is the priciest option of them all, but this mental exercise may help you decide what is the most appropriate course of action.

If your symptoms don’t warrant an ambulance, do they still warrant a trip to the emergency room? If you could kind of see yourself needing an ambulance, maybe that eliminates the urgent care and helps you make up your mind.


At the end of the day, it’s impossible to say whether emergency rooms or urgent care centers are going to meet your medical needs (at least, in a blog post). You’ll have to use your best judgment and of course, take everything here into consideration given the specific needs of the situation.

But the easiest thing to remember is that if it doesn’t seem life-threatening, the option of going to a walk-in clinic might be cheaper and easier.

Peruse our men’s health and women’s health sections for more tips on staying healthy and out of both!