- Urgent Care vs. ER: Urgent care handles non-life-threatening issues; ERs are for severe conditions.
- Variability in Services: Not all urgent care clinics offer identical treatments or medications.
- ER Wait Times: Non-emergent cases at ERs can face longer waits due to triage prioritization.
- Primary vs. Urgent Care: Urgent care shouldn't replace regular primary healthcare visits.
- Preparing for Urgent Care: Bring essential items like ID, medical history, and check insurance compatibility.
You woke up with a sore throat and cough—yikes. You start weighing your options… You could book an appointment with your primary care physician and be miserable for 2 to 3 days until you get in, spend several hundred dollars on an emergency room visit, or head to urgent care where you can see a provider today and most likely save a few bucks.
Unfortunately, your options aren’t always so clear. Sometimes it is hard to decide between going to urgent care vs. going to the ER. This is why it’s important to understand what urgent care clinics can do and what they can’t do. This is number one in our top 5 mistakes you should avoid when going to urgent care.
Mistake #1: Going to The ER When You Could go to Urgent Care
Urgent care clinics are designed to handle non-life-threatening medical issues. Some things that are usually considered non-life-threatening include:
- Sore throat, and other symptoms of cold or flu
- Most Symptoms of COVID-19
- Symptoms of UTI
- Symptoms of STDs
- Mild to moderate vomiting or diarrhea
- Small cuts or lacerations that may need stitches
- Simple fractures
- Back pain
- Mild to moderate allergic reactions and skin rashes
- Routine physicals (like sports physicals or DOT physicals)
On the other hand, emergency rooms are equipped to handle more severe injuries and illnesses, such as:
- Symptoms of a heart attack
- Symptoms of a stroke
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe allergic reactions (like anaphylaxis)
- Severe bleeding
- Traumatic injuries (like burns, complex fractures, internal injuries, and head injuries)
If you still aren’t sure which option is right for you, you could call your local urgent care or nurse line, and ask for their advice.
Can Urgent Care Send You to The Hospital?
Many urgent care clinics are able to stabilize patients and provide treatment for a wide range of medical issues. However, if your condition requires hospitalization or further medical attention, they can recommend that you go to an emergency room. Sometimes they can coordinate a transfer to the ER, but this may vary on the location, your clinical condition, and resources available.
When Should I Go to Urgent Care?
If you are experiencing a non-life-threatening medical problem, such as a minor injury, or symptoms of the flu, urgent care may be a great option for you. However, if you are experiencing chest pain, difficulty breathing, or other life-threatening symptoms, you should go to the emergency room immediately, according to the NIH.
Mistake #2: Thinking All Urgent Care Clinics Are The Same
Most urgent care clinics can provide treatment for a wide range of non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries. However, there are some things they cannot provide. In these cases, they may refer you to another healthcare facility (such as the ER, or a larger urgent care clinic) or a specialist.
Getting Common Treatments at Urgent Care
Some urgent care clinics can provide cortisone shots for joint pain, but it's important to note that they may not be able to provide them for certain conditions. If you are having joint pain or you have a medical condition that affects your joints, you may want to consider orthopedic urgent care, notes the NIH.
Some urgent care clinics may be able to provide IV antibiotics for certain conditions, such as infections that require immediate treatment. However, they may not be able to provide them for more complex infections or conditions that require ongoing treatment, notes the NIH. Also, there are some urgent care clinics that may not be able to provide this treatment at all. You can learn more about the specific services and treatments your urgent care can provide by calling them or looking on their website.
Narcotic Pain Medication
Every urgent care clinic will have its own policy regarding the use and prescribing of narcotic pain medication. This varies widely from one clinic to another, so if you are anticipating the need for narcotic pain control, you may want to call ahead to ask about their policy.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) shot
Similarly to narcotic pain medication, most urgent care clinics will have their own policy regarding NSAID shots. People who have complex conditions or who deal with chronic pain should consider working with a primary care physician for pain management and treatment for ongoing pain.
Getting Common Medications at Urgent Care
All urgent care clinics can differ in the services they provide. Some can stitch you up in cases of bleeding and offer STD testing on-site, while others might not.
When you visit an urgent care clinic, it's important to understand that they have limitations on what medications they can prescribe. Although urgent care clinics are designed to provide immediate care for a long list of conditions, they are not intended to replace primary care physicians or specialists. Here are some common medications that may require a primary care provider or specialist to prescribe, according to the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC):
- Any controlled substance
- Muscle relaxers
- Birth control (other than refills - if indicated)
- Blood pressure medication (other than refills - if indicated)
- Thyroid medications
These medications are best prescribed and monitored by a primary care physician who can understand and monitor your condition closely. Although some urgent care providers may be able to help you if your prescription runs outs or if your primary care physician is unavailable.
Can Urgent Care Refill Prescriptions?
Most providers at urgent care can prescribe medications to patients who qualify and need them. However, some urgent care clinics may have policies that limit certain medications (such as narcotics), according to the AJMC.
This underscores the fact that urgent care clinics are not a substitute for regular primary care. If you have a chronic condition that requires ongoing medication management, it is best to establish care with a primary care physician who can handle all your ongoing prescriptions and refills.
Mistake #3: Using Urgent Care Like an Emergency Room
Some urgent care clinics are associated with a hospital or emergency room, however, this only means that the two facilities are owned by the same company. This may make things easier if you go to an urgent care clinic but your condition is severe enough that they need to send you to the Emergency Room. Urgent care clinics are designed to handle an array of non-life-threatening conditions. Before the opening of urgent care clinics, emergency rooms would easily become “clogged up” with these non-emergent cases. Nowadays, ERs are able to care for more emergencies thanks to urgent care clinics.
If you go to an ER with a non-emergent condition, you may have to wait longer to be seen. This is because most emergency rooms use triage as a way to organize their patient intake. When you arrive at urgent care, you will be evaluated in a triage area, which will determine your place in line. More severe cases will be placed ahead of you.
You can avoid the long wait times and added expense of an ER by understanding what conditions can be taken care of at urgent care.
Healthcare Professionals at Urgent Care vs. the Emergency Room
Because urgent care and emergency rooms are set up differently, you will encounter different healthcare professionals at each. Because emergency rooms need to be ready for anything, they typically staff medical doctors that include emergency physicians, and have access to other specialists like anesthesiologists, surgeons, radiologists, and critical care specialists. They will also have support staff, such as registered nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, respiratory therapists,, nursing assistants, paramedics, EMTs, unit coordinators, lab technicians, x-ray technicians, and more.
Urgent care clinics are designed to treat non-life-threatening conditions and usually have a less-chaotic environment (compared to ERs). You will still find highly knowledgeable and licensed medical professionals, but may not encounter ones who are specialized in emergency or critical care. Urgent care clinics usually employ medical doctors who are board-certified family physicians, as well as nurse practitioners, physician assistants, registered nurses, X-ray and lab technicians, and nursing assistants.
No matter where you go, you can expect to be cared for by a licensed medical provider who has your best interest at the forefront of your care.
Mistake #4: Using Urgent Care For Primary Healthcare
While urgent care clinics are a convenient and affordable option for many medical issues, they should not be used to replace primary healthcare. It is important to establish care with a primary physician who can get to know you and your unique healthcare needs.
Urgent care clinics are designed to provide immediate medical attention for conditions that are not life-threatening, such as minor injuries or illnesses. Because of this, they are a great supplement to your primary care, if your primary care physician is unavailable.
Mistake #5: Forgetting to Bring Important Information
When you go to urgent care, it's important to bring certain items, to ensure you get the best possible outcome to your visit. Here are some things you should consider bringing with you:
- Your ID and insurance card
- A list of any medications you currently take
- Your medical history (including any previous surgeries, allergies, and chronic conditions you may have)
- A list of your current symptoms
- Payment method (if you don't have insurance, be prepared to pay for your visit out-of-pocket)
In addition to the items listed above, you should also consider bringing the following things to help make your visit smooth and comfortable:
- Comfortable clothing
- Forms and paperwork (including any referral paperwork, if you were referred to urgent care by another healthcare provider)
Does Urgent Care Take My Insurance?
Most urgent care clinics take insurance—so the price for a visit may not be as steep as you might think. However, you’ll still need to make sure that your specific insurance plan has urgent care coverage and that your chosen walk-in clinic accepts it. If you want to avoid surprise costs, you should call your insurance provider to discuss your coverage plan and any urgent care payment options before heading to the clinic.
Recap of The 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Going to Urgent Care
Urgent care clinics play a huge role in bringing quality healthcare to Americans. But it can be overwhelming when you or a loved one are not feeling well. This is why it's important to understand what urgent care clinics can do for you and what to bring with you for a smooth visit. To recap, five common mistakes people make when it comes to urgent care are:
- Not knowing when to go to urgent care
- Thinking all urgent care clinics are the same
- Using urgent care like an emergency room
- Using urgent care to replace primary care
- Forgetting to bring important items
If you’re reading this, chances are you are preparing to visit urgent care in the near future. To help you have the best experience possible, we’ve compiled a list of questions that you should ask before your appointment.
Questions to Ask Before Going to Urgent Care
Before going to any urgent care, it is important to research the facility and understand what services they offer. There can be major differences between small, independent urgent care clinics and larger urgent care clinics that are affiliated with a hospital system. Knowing what to expect can help you prepare and make informed decisions about your healthcare. Here are five questions you should ask, according to Agile Urgent Care:
- Do I need an appointment?
- Do you have lab and x-ray services available on-site?
- How long is your current wait time?
- Can I check in or hold my place in line online?
- Do you take my insurance?
- What is my co-pay for a visit?
- What is the cost of a visit without insurance? Do you offer payment plans?
- What type of provider will I see?
- Can you prescribe or refill my prescriptions?
- Do you offer telehealth services?
Need to find urgent care near you? Solv can help you find urgent care clinics in any zip code, and even help you make an appointment at some of our affiliated clinics.
Frequently asked questions
What is the primary purpose of urgent care clinics?Urgent care clinics are designed to handle non-life-threatening medical issues. They provide immediate medical attention for conditions such as minor injuries, symptoms of cold or flu, mild to moderate vomiting or diarrhea, and other similar conditions.
When should I choose to go to the emergency room instead of urgent care?You should go to the emergency room when you are experiencing life-threatening symptoms such as symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, difficulty breathing, severe allergic reactions, severe bleeding, or traumatic injuries.
Can urgent care clinics send me to the hospital if necessary?Yes, if your condition requires hospitalization or further medical attention, urgent care clinics can recommend that you go to an emergency room. Sometimes they can coordinate a transfer to the ER, but this may vary based on the location, your clinical condition, and resources available.
Are all urgent care clinics the same?No, not all urgent care clinics are the same. Most can provide treatment for a wide range of non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries, but there are some things they cannot provide. In these cases, they may refer you to another healthcare facility or a specialist.
Can urgent care clinics prescribe medications?Yes, most providers at urgent care can prescribe medications to patients who qualify and need them. However, some urgent care clinics may have policies that limit certain medications.
Should I use urgent care clinics as a replacement for primary healthcare?No, urgent care clinics should not be used to replace primary healthcare. They are a great supplement to your primary care, particularly if your primary care physician is unavailable.
What should I bring with me when I go to an urgent care clinic?You should bring your ID and insurance card, a list of any medications you currently take, your medical history, a list of your current symptoms, and a payment method. Comfortable clothing and any necessary forms or paperwork are also recommended.
Do urgent care clinics accept insurance?Yes, most urgent care clinics accept insurance. However, you should call your insurance provider to discuss your coverage plan and any urgent care payment options before heading to the clinic to avoid surprise costs.
Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
- When to Use The Emergency Room - Adult. (July 17, 2023) https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000593.htm
- What Type of Medication Can an Urgent Care Doctor Prescribe? (July 17, 2023) https://www.ajmc.com/view/what-type-of-medication-can-an-urgent-care-doctor-prescribe
- 5 Important Questions to Ask at an Urgent Care Clinic. (July 17, 2023) https://agileurgentcare.com/questions-urgent-care-clinic/