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March 17, 2016

ER or Urgent Care? How to Know Where to Go

by Amanda MacMillan

When you need medical attention, sometimes it’s obvious where to turn: Lingering cough and sore throat? Make an appointment with your doctor. Think you might be having a heart attack? Get to the emergency room, stat.

Other times, though, the answer isn’t so clear. Maybe your doctor is booked for days, or you’re traveling far from home. Or maybe you get sick over the weekend when the office is closed. What should you do then? Knowing where to go is key to getting the best care—and might just save you time and money.

Right Care, Right Place

“If you’ve got a problem that strikes you as severe or maybe even life-threatening, like you’re vomiting blood or you wake up with the worst headache of your life—get to the hospital or call 911,” says Ellen Miller, MD, CareConnect medical director and professor of medicine at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. “But if you’ve got a problem that would normally make you go to your doctor, only your doctor isn’t available, an urgent care clinic is probably a better choice.”

Urgent care facilities specialize in the treatment of medical problems that are urgent (like the name says) but not severe enough to warrant a trip to the ER. These facilities don’t require appointments and are often open on weekends and in the evening. Their physicians can diagnose and treat patients for illness and minor injuries like cuts and sprains.

After-hours availability is just one of the benefits an urgent care facility has to offer, Miller says. “If you can avoid the emergency room, you’ll probably save yourself a lot of time,” she says. “The ER is going to prioritize the real emergencies. If your case is not that serious, you will spend a huge amount of time waiting and waiting.”

Saving the ER for real emergencies may save you money, too. The co-pay for an emergency room visit is usually higher than for a trip to urgent care or your own doctor, although the specifics vary between plans and tiers.

There’s one more thing worth remembering, Miller says, and that’s to make your primary care provider your go-to whenever possible. Schedule your check-ups, and when a routine problem crops up, see if you can get a same-day appointment. “The preferable scenario is almost always to go to your primary care physician,” Miller says. “That’s the person who knows you and your history, has your full medical record, and will be able to follow up with you after your treatment is over.”