Emergency physicians help clarify the difference between emergency care and urgent care

Understanding the difference between emergency care and urgent care is important, especially in the stressful moments of an unexpected health crisis. With many hospitals at or near capacity, the American College of Emergency Physicians is sharing tips to help simplify the decision about where to seek care when immediate medical attention is needed.

“The emergency department is the best option for concerning symptoms, severe illness or injury, and we’re open 24/7, 365,” said Dr. Christopher S. Kang, president of ACEP. “Emergency physicians are ready to help anyone who needs them — we are trained to treat every kind of medical emergency.”

Emergency departments are outfitted with advanced medical equipment and staffed to handle more complex care for severe health issues. Some of the most common reasons to seek emergency care include trouble breathing, chest pain, uncontrolled bleeding, seizures, severe abdominal pain, head injuries, sudden severe headache or dizziness and sudden confusion or disorientation. Emergency physicians are experts trained to evaluate and manage any mystery injury or ailment.

Urgent care is a vital part of the health care system and can be a good option for common minor medical issues that require timely attention, especially during after-hours or weekend when an appointment with a physician is unavailable. Urgent care is likely appropriate for a modest cough, runny nose, sore throat, rashes, minor cuts, upset stomach, minor bone fractures, pink eye and other seemingly mild symptoms.

However, since most urgent care centers do not have the full suite of medical equipment or specialized staff typically found in an emergency department, they are likely not a substitute for emergency care. Another difference is that emergency departments — unlike urgent care centers — are required by law to treat or stabilize anyone who seeks emergency care, regardless of their ability to pay or insurance status. Whereas most urgent care centers accept health insurance but require payment when services are delivered.

“Knowing when and where to go in a health emergency can save a life,” continued Kang. “If you need care for a severe illness or injury, or if you’re unsure about what’s wrong and your regular physician is not available, an emergency physician will always be there for you.”

Always call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department if a medical emergency is suspected.