Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room: Choosing the Right Facility for Your Needs

Exceptional Emergency Center, based in Harlingen, TX, is a 24-hour emergency care operation that offers a comprehensive set of emergency room services at five locations. Each is equipped to respond immediately to the most serious and life-threatening injuries, conditions, and illnesses.

Staffed by board-certified and trained emergency medicine physicians, these facilities include acute care, cardiology, and laboratory services. The emergency center includes advanced diagnostic imaging and radiology and a 24-hour pharmacy as well.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, there were 141.4 million U.S. emergency department visits in 2014. These included 40 million injury-related visits, 11.2 million resulting in hospital admissions, and 1.8 million requiring critical care.

Given the number of visits to emergency departments, and the fact most individuals in the ER don’t require critical care, an argument can be made as to whether urgent care is, in some cases, a better alternative to a 24-hour emergency room. A 24-hour medical clinic that provides urgent care is staffed by physicians and nurses and can provide diagnostic and lab tests. However, the facility you choose can be a life or death decision in the most extreme cases.

When to Call 911

Any emergency situation warrants a 911 call. A medical emergency qualifies when immediate care is necessary. You may be tempted to drive the person to the emergency room, but this is a bad idea for many reasons.

First, you’re putting their life at risk if you don’t have the training or equipment to provide immediate medical attention. Another reason to call for help during an emergency is that you may be rushed or in a panic. Driving a car in that state increases the chances of an accident. It can put you, the person experiencing the medical emergency, and other motorists and pedestrians at risk.

When you dial 911, the dispatcher will contact the nearest emergency department, and an ambulance and medical technicians can arrive within minutes. They provide urgent evaluation and treatment on the spot if needed. Transport to the nearest hospital often takes just minutes since ambulances have the right of way to pass vehicles and proceed through red lights and restricted areas.

The emergency room is the right choice for:

Signs of a heart attack: Chest pain that persists and/or radiates to the left arm or jaw, shortness of breath, sweating, or vomiting are common signs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 790,000 people in the U.S. have a heart attack each year, and 15% of them die. The longer blood flow to the heart is restricted, the greater the damage and risk of mortality. Call for help immediately if someone has the symptoms, and if you know they smoke; have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes; or have had a previous incident or stroke.

Signs of a stroke: A stroke is when blood does not get to parts of the brain. Difficulty speaking, sudden paralysis or weakness on one side of the body/face, loss of balance, fainting, severe headaches, or vision loss are symptoms. The occurrence can be ischemic, or when a blood clot or fatty deposit blocks a vessel; or hemorrhagic, meaning a blood vessel has burst and blood/fluid builds up in sensitive brain tissues.

If you’re wondering “Should I go to the emergency room?” other reasons include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe heart palpitations
  • Poisoning
  • Coughing up/vomiting blood
  • Head or eye injuries
  • Seizures
  • Deep open cuts
  • Severely injured/severed limbs
  • Broken bones
  • Joint dislocations
  • Severe burns
  • Severe flu symptoms
  • High fever

By calling for help, life-saving treatment is available before arriving at the hospital. Plus, hospitals are equipped to handle just about anything. Operating rooms, radiology equipment, and doctors of all experience levels are available for patients who need them the most.

If a person needs more extensive care, they can be admitted and provided with a bed so they can be monitored and treated. Life-saving surgery can be performed on someone with a heart attack or stroke. Medications are administered to people with severe pain, fever, or seizures.

Choosing a General Practitioner over Emergency Treatment

There are many differences between urgent care and emergency rooms. Most people treated at an urgent care location have minor issues. Although wait times vary, they are generally shorter, as hospitals prioritize patients based on the severity of symptoms.

Other reasons to go to urgent care include lower insurance copays. Also, the staff is on the lookout for signs of an emergency, according to a University of Michigan resource for acute care vs. urgent care. Physicians and nurses call local hospitals right away if need be.

A general practitioner may treat symptoms that have some level of urgency. However, these do not constitute an emergency. Their onset is gradual, and you may already know the diagnosis Such clinics are suited for evaluation and treatment of symptoms such as:

  • Fever not accompanied by a rash
  • Sore throat
  • Mild asthma
  • Vomiting
  • Pain when urinating
  • Ear pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Shallow cuts or minor sprains

You might choose against going to a full-service emergency room if you have symptoms but know you’re prone to urinary tract infections. A primary doctor is often the better choice for treating a child with an ear infection. Waiting at the doctor’s office isn’t always the best option, though. A minor break to a bone in the hand, wrist, foot, or ankle may not have to be reset, but the pain and need for a diagnosis and treatment by a specialist can prompt you to find a no wait emergency care alternative.

When should you go to emergency care is an important question to consider. Urgent care facilities are not substitutes for primary care physicians, who know patients’ health histories and treatments for recurring issues that succeeded in the past. Nonetheless, you could receive care quickly if a same-day appointment can’t be arranged with your doctor.

Urgent Care vs. Emergency Centers: The Path to Divergence

By 2012, there were about 9,000 urgent care centers in the U.S., according to the American Journal of Clinical Medicine. Its general definition of such centers includes those that can provide unscheduled care, more services than a typical primary physician, and after-hours access.

Although not a full-service emergency room, most clinics can provide x-rays/CT scans/MRI/ultrasound, wound repair, basic fracture care, intravenous medications and fluids, and abscess treatments. They often perform blood work as well.

As early as 1970, physicians began opening standalone clinics to help patients with acute medical care. Quality issues and questionable training led to a decline in such care after the mid-1980s but, in recent years, urgent care centers have become commonplace across the country. People have gravitated toward these to deal with shortages and lack of primary care availability. The cost of the nearest 24-hour emergency room is another reason.

The standards for centers have improved in recent years. Physicians have found them as a viable alternative to other forms of practice, while the Urgent Care Association of America has made training more readily available in the form of conventions, online webinars, and conferences. The association has created one-year postgraduate fellowship programs and supported the formation of the Urgent Care College of Physicians in 2010.

Urgent care and emergency centers have common roots. Indeed, physicians and patients have gravitated toward non-emergency care facilities. Decreased cost, improved quality, and access to care are a few reasons.

There’s also a blurry dividing line between one and the other. An NBC News report in April 2017 covered the story of a mother who took her daughter to what seemed like an urgent care facility. The insurance bill was the equivalent to that of an emergency room. To her surprise, the facility turned out to be one of the many freestanding emergency healthcare centers that have helped alleviate long ER wait times and lack of access.

There are currently 35 states with freestanding emergency rooms. They are often affiliated with existing hospitals, but some are owned independently. Many are represented by the National Association of Freestanding Emergency Centers.

It seems both types of care have evolved in recent years.

However, it’s important to realize when emergency treatment may be the best solution. Exceptional Emergency Center has combined the best of both worlds, providing a 24-hour emergency clinic where people can find private treatment rooms, 24/7 availability, and trained experienced nurses and board-certified emergency physicians. It accepts all major private insurance plans and also offers flexible payment options, easing the care process for patients.

For more information on our 24-hour emergency care, visit one of our ER locations.


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhamcs/web_tables/2014_ed_web_tables.pdf
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/heart_attack.htm
  3. https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/health-management/urgent-care-vs-emergency-room-whats-difference
  4. https://www.aapsus.org/wp-content/uploads/ucc80.pdf
  5. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-care/you-thought-it-was-urgent-care-center-until-you-got-n750906