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What is the Difference Between an Emergency Room and an Urgent Care Center?

In the emergency room, minor items such as aspirin may carry a high cost.
Emergency rooms provide 24-hour treatment for immediate medical needs, such as a heart attack.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2014
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For many people, the term "emergency room," or ER, is synonymous with immediate medical attention. It's typically the first destination if someone collapses on the job or a child injures himself after school. In recent years, however, many of the same medical services have been offered by freestanding or private facilities known as urgent care centers. While the two are not the same and serious medical emergencies should always be dealt with in an ER, less extreme injuries that need to be reviewed by a medical professional can typically be handled in urgent care.

In the case of these two hypothetical victims, an individual who collapsed at work would most likely be better served in an emergency room. The injured child, on the other hand, would probably be a better candidate for an urgent care center. The worker may have a serious cardiac condition that would require immediate attention from a trained cardiologist, and this is most quickly provided in a setting connected to a hospital. The urgent care center, on the other hand, usually has the means to treat broken bones or other non-life threatening conditions, but not to treat heart attacks in-house.

Another difference between these medical facilities is availability. An ER connected to a government-funded hospital is usually required to provide 24-hour emergency care. An urgent care center may be privately funded, which means it has the right to determine its own hours of operation.

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An urgent care center's main mission is to provide immediate medical care during times when a patient's primary physician is not available. It would not be unusual for an urgent care center to close at 11 p.m. — or even earlier — and reopen at 7 a.m. the next morning. Anyone seeking immediate treatment outside of those hours would most likely be urged to visit a traditional emergency room.

As people who've gone to the ER there for non-emergent injuries usually find out, however, there is often a very long wait to see a medical professional as emergency cases are always seen first. Because an urgent care center does not routinely handle multiple traumas, there is usually less of a wait between initial triage and examination by a physician.

One important difference between these healthcare options is the expense. Anyone who has visited an emergency room for a relatively minor situation has probably been surprised by the high cost. Many are required by law to provide treatment to anyone who requests it, regardless of the patient's ability to pay, so the hospital that sponsors the ER often attempts to recoup some of its losses by billing insured patients at higher rates. This can mean big bills for even common items, like aspirin or bandages, that are provided there. Physicians can charge significant fees for their services as well.

An urgent care center, on the other hand, can exercise the right to refuse uninsured patients or those with a proven inability to pay. This practice keeps overhead expenses lower, so an insured patient is not charged exorbitant fees for common medical items. Doctors and nurses who provide services may agree to put a ceiling on their fees as employees of a private medical company. Patients often receive much smaller bills after visiting a local urgent care center.

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Discuss this Article

anon321850
Post 10

Urgent care centers have lower costs and are generally funded by some private institutions whereas in case of the emergency room they provide round the clock 24 hours medical services. As described above, when there is a major problem, then it is better to go for the emergency room rather than go to the urgent care centers. For first aid conditions, one may refer to the urgent care rooms.

sellykegan
Post 9

It's a little bit puzzling to me, too about what's the actual difference between the clinics as both indicate the same importance. Thanks for making the concept clear.

anon181080
Post 7

i called my local Urgent care and asked if they would bill me, because I was in the middle of getting her insurance. They told me yes, but when I arrived, the lady comes and tells me that the amount would be about $400. I was ok with that. I just wanted my daughter to be seen.

I filled out all the paper work and 10 minutes later, the lady comes out saying we refuse to see your daughter and I won't risk losing my job, for a doctor to see her. She handed me the paper and told me to leave. Is this right? Can she do this? Deny me service?

anon105181
Post 6

Andrea, check out Dr. Mercola in Chicago. Also, I suggest trying to find a good naturopath or homeopathic doctor who also has an MD, or even a good acupuncturist. Good luck and don't give up!

anon56682
Post 5

absolutely. got landed in same situation just like anon49700. Question here is as a patient, why are we not told upfront about the change from urgent care to emergency?

also, has anyone heard of this: what emergency care center is justifying the bill "as since we are not longer contracting with insurance-abcd, we will charge you as emergency. if insurance-abcd was in network then we will charge you like urgent care." What? Any thoughts or ideas on this?

anon49700
Post 3

I recently took my daughter to what I thought was an urgent care but once I received my statement I found out that the place i went to was changed to an emergency room and that the urgent care had moved two blocks away. I was not informed of that and was totally misled during the whole visit. So the difference between two blocks is $875. Wow does that seem fair or what? I plan to dispute this because they were originally an urgent care and just recently changed and do not share that information with the patients.

anon40961
Post 2

Can an urgent care refuse treatment to a child once triaged due to dislike of the parent?

anon23752
Post 1

hello my name is andrea i have been sick for 4 years now with no known diagnosis or the tests always come back negative i have had 20 cat scans within these years one doc says my small intestine is attached to my pancreas and i have irritable bowel syndrome another says nothing is showing then i have dysplasia of cervix now another says im anemic what am i going to do i really need help here im in pain all the time and nobody is helping me out im really sick

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