Should You Go to the Emergency Room or Urgent Care?

Learn the difference between emergency and non-emergency care

Patients with masks wait in the emergency department.

Learn the difference between emergency and non-emergency care

All too often, illness or injury appears out of the blue: You wake up in the middle of the night with intense abdominal pain. You stumble while carrying groceries up a flight of stairs, and cannot put weight on your swollen ankle. Or your baby spikes a high fever on the weekend.

When these situations occur, we’re often faced with uncertainty about where to go for care, especially if the symptoms seem severe and our regular doctor’s office is closed.

While the answer is not always simple, knowing the difference between a walk-in clinic, an urgent care center and a hospital emergency room can make a huge difference, especially if you have a medical emergency.

What’s the difference between ER, urgent care and walk-in clinic?

“Recognizing the differences between ‘emergency’ and ‘urgent’ care can be confusing, because both terms imply there is a medical need that needs to be addressed quickly,” says Shawn Evans, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.

“However, there are distinct differences between hospital emergency rooms, traditional urgent care centers or walk-in clinics, including the level of care that can be provided at each.”

Hospital emergency departments provide medical care at any time, day or night. Unlike urgent care centers or walk-in clinics, they are equipped and staffed to handle the most complex or critical needs, including life- and limb-threatening situations ranging from heart attack and stroke to traumatic injuries following a car accident.

Urgent care or walk-in clinics help fill a vital gap when you become sick or injured, but your regular doctor is not available and you can’t wait for an appointment.

“If your sudden illness or injury is something you would normally feel comfortable addressing with your primary care doctor, then an urgent care center or walk-in clinic setting is probably more appropriate than the emergency room,” says Dr. Evans.

When to go to the ER

Certain medical conditions are considered emergencies because they can require rapid or advanced treatments, including surgery, that are only available in a hospital setting.

Symptoms that are best evaluated in an emergency room include:

  • Chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • Weakness/numbness on one side
  • Slurred speech
  • Fainting/change in mental state
  • Serious burns
  • Head or eye injury
  • Concussion/confusion
  • Broken bones and dislocated joints
  • Fever with a rash
  • Seizures
  • Severe cuts that may require stitches
  • Facial lacerations
  • Severe cold or flu symptoms
  • Vaginal bleeding with pregnancy

“Trust your gut,” says Dr. Evans. “If your personal instinct or your motherly intuition tells you it’s serious, don’t hesitate — go to the nearest emergency room.”

Scripps emergency rooms are located in Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla (inside Prebys), Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego (in Hillcrest) and Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista.

All four emergency departments have been accredited for geriatric care. Seniors visit emergency departments at higher rates than non-seniors for conditions or accidents that require rapid of advanced treatments.

When to call 911

Even if it is clear that you or your loved one needs emergency care, you may not be sure whether to drive yourself to an emergency room or call 911.

“Many people are nervous about calling 911, but it’s better to be safe than sorry,” says Dr. Evans. “You should never drive yourself if you are having severe chest pain or severe bleeding, if you feel like you might faint or if your vision is impaired. When in doubt, please call 911 — what matters most is that you get to the emergency room quickly and safely.”

In case of a heart attack or stroke, calling or having someone call 911 for an ambulance is always the right decision. Paramedics often can begin delivering life-saving treatment on the way to the hospital.

Drug overdose is also a growing problem. Recognizing the signs and calling 911 immediately can save a life. Many people die each day from overdoses related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

When to go to urgent care

Urgent care is not emergency care. Urgent care centers are same-day clinics that can handle a variety of medical problems that need to be treated right away, but are not considered true emergencies.

“Many people use the emergency room as a place to receive after-hours care for minor illnesses or injuries without realizing they have another option,” says Dr. Evans.

Urgent cares are often equipped with X-ray, lab and other diagnostic services, and as a result can handle more severe non-emergencies than walk-in clinics. They also help free up emergency rooms for the most serious medical cases.

Symptoms that can be evaluated and treated at an urgent care clinic include:

  • Fever without a rash
  • Vomiting or persistent diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Dehydration
  • Moderate flu-like symptoms
  • Sprains and strains
  • Small cuts that may require stitches

Before going to an urgent care, you may want to contact your primary care doctor’s office in case you are able to get a same-day appointment. It’s worth calling your primary care doctor because they may be familiar with your health history, including what treatments have worked best in the past and whether you have other medical conditions that need to be taken into consideration.

"An urgent care clinic is not a substitute for your primary care physician, but it is a great resource when you need care but can’t get in with your doctor," according to Dr. Evans.

Scripps offers urgent care services for children and adults — seven days a week — at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Jefferson (in Oceanside), Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.

When to go to a walk-in clinic

Walk-in clinics are a good option for when you are not feeling well, but it’s not serious enough for the emergency room or urgent care.

Walk-in clinics offer fast, convenient access to medical care. No appointment is necessary. They are generally staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants. 

Walk-in clinics, including Scripps HealthExpress, address the most minor of ailments, such as:

  • Painful urination
  • Rashes without fever
  • Mild flu-like symptoms
  • Cough and congestion symptoms
  • Sore throat
  • Ear pain
  • Eye redness, discharge or itchiness

Many walk-in clinics also provide sports physicals and vaccines.

Scripps offers HealthExpress care at multiple Scripps Clinic and Scripps Coastal locations throughout San Diego County.

How to prepare for a medical visit

How to prepare for a medical visit

Wherever you go for your medical visit, it’s a good idea to bring a list of medications you take, including over-the-counter medicine, vitamins and supplements, how much you take and how often.

Also keep with you a list of any allergies (including medication allergies) and any previous medical procedures or surgeries you’ve had, including the dates they were performed and the names of the physicians or surgeons who treated you.

“Especially in an emergency setting, it can be very helpful for the physician treating you to know whether you’ve had operations in the past, or whether you’re allergic to medications or anesthesia,” says Dr. Evans.

Infographic: Walk-in, Urgent Care, Emergency Room

This infographic from Scripps Health offers information about when you should go to a walk-in clinic or urgent care, and when it’s time for the emergency room.

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