Choosing Between Urgent Care and the Emergency Room

There are a few major differences between the cost and care of urgent care and emergency care facilities, so making the right choice is important.

It’s a common scenario: It’s late. Your doctor’s office isn’t open. And you need medical attention. You’re feeling faint. Your daughter is having trouble breathing. Your husband threw out his back. Your wife has a debilitating migraine. Your son has a mysterious rash on his arm. You need medical care now, but is it an emergency?

When you or a loved one has been injured or is feeling ill and needs professional medical care after hours, you typically have two choices: urgent care or emergency care.

Urgent Care

What is urgent care? Urgent care is an outpatient healthcare facility that offers immediate medical services to treat acute injuries and chronic illnesses. Urgent care does not substitute routine care provided by a primary care physician nor does it replace the life-saving care provided in an emergency room.

In general, urgent care is for non-life threatening medical issues with symptoms that can’t wait until a visit to your regular primary physician. Some common reasons to visit an urgent care facility include, but are not limited to:

  • Dehydration
  • Eye irritation and redness
  • Minor broken bones and fractures, sprains, and strains
  • Minor cuts that require stitches
  • Moderate back problems
  • Moderate to severe flu or cold symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, cough, or sore throat
  • Minor infections (urinary tract, ear, etc.)
  • X-rays, lab tests, and other diagnostic services

While all of these ailments can be treated in an emergency room department, doing so could be more complicated and costly for the patient.

Emergency Care

What is emergency care? Emergency care departments are intended for life-threatening emergencies. Any condition that threatens to permanently damage or compromise the life of a patient warrants a visit to the emergency room. Some common reasons to visit an emergency care department include, but are not limited to:

  • Severe chest or abdominal pain
  • Heart attack
  • Severe breathing problems
  • Severe injuries sustained during a fall, car crash, or other accident
  • Severe head or eye injuries
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Broken bones

Making the Choice

The holidays are coming, which means an increased chance of visiting an urgent care facility or emergency room. From increased travel and car crashes to interactions with sick people to holiday decoration accidents, there are plenty of risk factors that could leave you injured or sick and in need of immediate medical care.

When choosing between emergency care and urgent care ask yourself: Is this injury or illness life-threatening or life-altering? If the answer is yes, go to the emergency room. If the answer is no, go to the closest urgent care facility. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if your condition is life threatening or not. And often, individuals incorrectly choose which type of care they need.

Choosing incorrectly can cost you a lot of money. Urgent care centers have lower copayments and significantly less expensive treatments. On average, an urgent care visit costs $150 per patient. A visit to the emergency room is much costlier because they are staffed and prepared for any emergency. A visit at an emergency care center costs an average of $1,200 before insurance helps with the cost. If you have a plan with a higher deductible, your out-of-pocket costs could be much greater.

According to an American College of Emergency Physicians poll, 71% of participating emergency room physicians reported that they treat patients daily who were transferred to their care after first going to an urgent care facility. Ninety percent of respondents reported that patients are typically sent to the emergency room because the urgent care facility didn’t have the expertise or equipment to handle their medical situation or the patient’s condition turns out to be much worse than the patient originally thought.

Canopy Health

Your health and well-being are important to us. That’s why Canopy Health is committed to reinventing healthcare in the Bay Area with transparent cost structures and increased access to care when and where you need it most.


2014 ACEP Urgent Care Poll Results (2014). American College of Emergency Physicians. Retrieved from

Emergency Rooms vs. Urgent Care Centers. (2017, June 6). Retrieved from