Knowing the difference between urgent care and emergency care

SAN DIEGO (KUSI) – The weekend is here and you’re out having fun, staying active playing your favorite sport but then something bad happens. You trip and fall and hurt yourself. The pain tells you to seek immediate treatment but your doctor’s office is closed until the morning. What should you do?

You can go to an emergency room or you can visit your nearest urgent care. Knowing the difference between urgent care and emergency care, and where to seek treatment, could save you time and money in a non-emergency. In an emergency, it could save your life.

Time for the ER

Most people are familiar with emergency rooms and how busy they are either from personal experience or watching the news. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency rooms handle more than 136 million visits annually, including more than 40 million injury-related visits.

“Emergency departments are an essential part of our health care system,” says Shawn Evans, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. “They are there to provide medical care for a broad range of illnesses and injuries at any time, especially life-threatening conditions that require immediate attention.”

While emergency departments were designed to provide fast, life-or-limb-saving care, many people use the ER as a place to receive urgent care without realizing it.

Urgent care centers are walk-in, outpatient clinics found throughout San Diego County that primarily treat injuries or illnesses requiring immediate care but are not serious enough to require an emergency room visit.

It is worth repeating that if you’re ever in doubt, it’s better to be safe and go to the closest ER.

Sometimes driving yourself or a loved one to the emergency room won’t get you the medical care needed fast enough.

“Many people are confused about when to call 911,” says Dr. Evans. “It’s better to be safe than sorry. If you are in doubt, please call 911. Do not drive if you are having severe chest pain or severe bleeding, if you feel like you might faint or if your vision is impaired.”

For certain medical emergencies, such as a heart attack or stroke, taking an ambulance is safer because paramedics can deliver life-saving care on the way to the hospital.

These are some of the conditions that are considered medical emergencies:

Persistent chest pains, especially if it radiates to your arm or jaw, or is accompanied by sweating, vomiting or shortness of breath.
Severe pain, particularly in the abdomen or starting halfway down the back.
Broken bones or dislocated joints
Loss of balance or fainting
Difficulty speaking, altered mental status or confusion
Weakness or paralysis
Severe heart palpitations
Falls with injury or while taking blood thinning medications
Newborn baby with a fever
Intestinal bleeding
Head, face and eye injuries
Severe flu or cold symptoms
High fevers or fevers with rash
Bleeding that won’t stop or a large open wound
Serious burns

You may also be sent to the ER by your doctor if you have an underlying condition, such as hypertension or diabetes, which could complicate your diagnosis and require extra care.

Urgent care is not emergency care

Urgent care departments are same-day clinics that can handle a variety of conditions that need to be treated right away but are not emergencies. As such the wait time is shorter and less costly than a visit to the emergency room.

Some symptoms that can be treated at urgent care include:

Fever without rash
Minor trauma such as a common sprain
Painful urination
Persistent diarrhea
Severe sore throat
Broken bones of the wrist, hand, ankle or foot that have no obvious need to reset and have not broken the skin.

While urgent care clinics are always available, your primary care physician will have a better picture of your overall health for a more accurate diagnosis.

Be prepared for medical care

Whether you’re going to urgent care, the ER or your primary care physicians’ office, it’s good to keep a list of all the medications you take with you including dosages and any over-the-counter medications and vitamins. Many medications, and even vitamins, can interact with the treatment options your physician plans to use.

Scripps offers four emergency room locations, three urgent care offices and primary care physicians throughout the county. If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of a stroke or heart attack, call 9-1-1.

For more information, visit or call 858-240-5075.

Categories: Health