There are a number of differences between urgent care and the emergency room, but many of the same services can be accessed at both locations. The choice between using the two often depends on a number of considerations including the severity of the condition, the time of the day, insurance, and other potential costs. If the condition is such that a person is being taken into a facility by ambulance, typically that will be an emergency room visit.
The biggest difference between urgent care and the emergency room is the level of care that is provided. Emergency rooms can treat everything from minor cuts to serious, life-threatening emergencies that require quick and immediate attention by expert physicians. Urgent care clinics, on the other hand, do not typically handle life-threatening emergencies. Rather, they handle matters that may address an immediate need, but it may not be a major need. Additionally, emergency rooms are typically open 24 hours, whereas urgent care clinics usually close during the night, and on holidays.
While it is important to understand that all medical professionals are trained in certain lifesaving techniques, the equipment available to those professionals differs greatly between urgent care and the emergency room, as often does the experience of the doctors. Emergency room doctors may have electrocardiogram machines, Computerized Tomography equipment, and other technical tools that require a great deal of training. Some urgent care facilities also have access to certain pieces of equipment such as X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging equipment, but not as consistently as hospital emergency rooms.
Another one of the major differences between urgent care and the emergency room is the cost of the services. Typically, urgent care costs less than emergency care. This may be due to several reasons, but mainly due to efficiencies that can be found in an urgent care facility. An emergency room must make sure there is always adequate staff on hand to deal with critical cases of all kinds. That is not required of urgent care clinics.
Prioritization of care is another difference between urgent care and the emergency room. Typically, upon arrival at an emergency room, a patient will be triaged to determine what level of care they need, and how soon they will be seen by a doctor. Those with the greatest needs see a physician first. In an urgent care facility, the patient is usually seen on a first-come, first-served basis.
There could also be differences in the insurance accepted, and the terms of the billing. These situations, however, differ not only between urgent care facilities and hospitals, but from one hospital or urgent care facility to another. If there is a co-pay or if the patient has no insurance, urgent care locations typically expect payment before the patient leaves; emergency rooms are typically required by law treat life-threatening condition even if the patient has no insurance, and is unable to pay out of pocket.