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Emergency Department, Urgent Care Clinic, or Your Doctor’s Office?

by Michael Gerst, DO

Urgent care. Emergency department. Extended hours. Walk-in appointments.

With more ways than ever to access medical care, we have created greater consumer choice – and greater confusion. How do you know which choice is right for you and your family? Clear up the confusion with this helpful comparison:

Emergency Care

If it’s a health emergency, think Emergency Department. If you are ever experiencing symptoms of a potentially life-threatening condition, such as a stroke, trauma, or heart attack, dial 9-1-1, or go directly to the closest Emergency Department.

Time matters. Your nearest Emergency Department is equipped to stabilize your condition and transfer you to another center for specialty services if indicated based on your condition.

Emergency departments are…

  • Open 24/7 
  • Intended for pressing medical emergencies 
  • Staffed by highly skilled providers specializing in emergent medical conditions 
  • Mandated to care for patients, regardless of their ability to pay
  • Meant to evaluate and care for patients with potentially life-threatening conditions first, through a process called triage. Patients are often not seen in the order they arrive due to the triage process. 

Urgent Care

Despite the name “urgent,” urgent care clinics should not be utilized for medical emergencies. These convenient clinics are intended to provide a safety net for when your regular physician’s office is closed or unable to schedule a timely appointment.

Urgent care clinics are…

  • Open during certain hours only
  • Designed to see patients quickly and after-hours
  • Treat common, minor problems like earaches, rashes, insect bites, and flu
  • Not equipped with the same resources and specialists as emergency departments 
  • Not required to treat patients who cannot pay, and request payment at time of service

Primary Care

Primary care offices are also known as health centers or a doctor’s office. These offices feature family medicine providers specially trained for treating patients of all ages. These offices may feature physicians (MD and DO), certified nurse practitioners (CRNP), and physician assistants (PA-C).

Primary care offices are…

  • Open during the week, and may offer extended hours for evenings or weekends
  • Your best resource for physical exams, wellness screenings, and immunizations
  • Intended to manage chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, minor acute conditions like common cold, UTI, and your overall wellness 
  • Helpful for diagnosing problems early, and connecting you with specialists as needed for outpatient evaluation and/or testing 

Seeing a primary care doctor regularly is the key to maintaining your overall health. Through regular visits, your provider gets to know you, your family history, and your lifestyle. They recommend preventive health screenings and immunizations based on your age and individual health care needs. By developing a trusted relationship with a regular doctor, you can talk honestly and openly about your health concerns.

While the electronic medical record makes it easier to keep all your medical providers on the same page, it is always a good idea to update your family doctor on any visits to specialists or emergency services. Be sure to keep your family doctor up to date on any changes in your medical history, treatments, or medications.

Find the care that's right for you.