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Do you need the emergency department or an urgent care clinic?

When you’re sick or injured, should you head to the emergency department or an urgent care clinic? It’s important to know the differences between these facilities and what they treat.

The ED is for life-threatening situations, but many people go there when urgent care would be more appropriate. According to one study, nearly half of ED patients who didn’t need hospital admission went to the ED simply because their doctor's offices weren't open.

When urgent care is the better choice

“The most urgent or critical patients are always provided care in the emergency department ahead of patients that may have less urgent conditions,” says Michael Zimmermann, executive director of operations and emergency services at Piedmont Columbus Regional. “This does mean that a patient that presents for a non-emergent condition may very well wait longer for care, and quite possibly see a patient that has a more urgent or critical condition get seen or provided treatment ahead of them.”

For non-emergencies, urgent care is often more appropriate and less expensive. Out-of-pocket costs are likely lower, especially if the facility is in your health insurance network.

Emergency departments treat people in order of need, so you may wait longer depending on your reason for going. Urgent care centers typically see people on a first-come, first-served basis.

Here are some symptoms that an urgent care center or your primary care physician can treat:

Kandra Watson, MD, a family medicine physician at Piedmont, offers a succinct primer: “If it hurts to pee, think urgent care, but if you can’t pee, please go to the ED!”

Patients don’t always recognize how many capabilities an urgent care center has, she says.

“Did you cut yourself on a kitchen gadget? Do you need a tetanus shot? Has the bleeding mainly stopped? We repair simple lacerations also,” she says.

When your emergency department is the better choice

More serious problems—like severe pain, difficulty breathing, and traumatic injuries—do need screening and treatment at the ED.

In major emergencies, driving to the ED won't get you help fast enough. It's safer to call 911, especially in life-threatening situations. Paramedics can start care immediately.

Here are some reasons to go to the ED:

If you are unsure what constitutes an emergency or which costs will be covered, contact your insurer. Go to your closest ED if you’re in doubt, but if the problem is only that you can't reach your doctor, consider an urgent care center.

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