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Urgent care or emergency room care: Know the difference

​​​​Urgent care and emergency care have things in common, but their differences should be most important to you.

Why? You'll get the right care at the right time at the right place, treating an illness or injury before it becomes more serious. And, it's wise use of your health care dollar.

Urgent care is for injury and illness that need care fast but is not life threatening. Board-certified providers treat problems and may suggest follow-up with primary care doctors.

chart comparing urgent care and emergency room care

According to William Melms, M.D., Urgent Care Department, Marshfield Clinic Minocqua Center, "what we don't want to see are people who're afraid they're having heart attacks or stroke. Heart attack and stroke means time is of the essence. Going to urgent care first - delays care."

His advice: Call ahead so trained staff can help guide this decision.

Some urgent care locations see people when primary care is unavailable, especially in tourist areas. "Our goal is to get those people we see to go to a primary care doctor for follow up," Dr. Melms said.

Emergency care is for serious medical conditions when delaying care could cause permanent harm or death. It's not for routine care, emphasized Marshfield Clinic Emergency Medicine Physician Michael J. Schaars, M.D. He sees patients at Howard Young Medical Center, Woodruff.

Emergency medicine is often referred to as medicine's safety net because it's a destination for people to get health care when they don't have any other place to turn. That applies across the U.S.

"Of all patients we see in the emergency room (ER), not many are true emergencies but some need full ER services," he said. "We see a lot of need for urgent care and office-based care. For people weighing the differences, seeing their regular doctor is best because they know each other. Urgent care would be quicker and less expensive than in an ER, if appropriate."

ER patients are seen based on urgency of their situation. "When it's busy you may wait," Dr. Schaars said. "It's not a problem all the time but it will still take longer than expected."

Dr. Schaars said trends in emergency medicine show an ER sees more complicated, older, sicker, more challenging patients. Their care takes more time, too.

Both doctors agree urgent care is more cost-effective, "but sometimes urgent care is not the most appropriate choice," Dr. Melms said. "I've had people having a heart attack right in front of me, they know it, but they say the ER is more expensive. The visit is driven by cost."

ER providers see patients, regardless of their ability to pay, but, added Dr. Schaars, "people are paying more out-of-pocket, so it's important to be intelligent health care consumers. We are able, capable and willing to take care of patients, but primary and urgent care could be better solutions."​