Boy with his arm in a cast

Urgent care? Emergency center? Hospital ER? Which do you need?

Americans have lots of consumer choices: electronics, groceries, clothing, cars, etc. Following suit, medical care facilities are popping up as fast as ambulances can dart down the highway. Understanding their specializations before you need medical attention will save time, money, and in some cases even lives.

Urgent care clinics, free-standing emergency centers, and hospital-affiliated emergency rooms differ in their “capability to take care of complex patients,” explains Ross Tobleman, MD, emergency department medical director at Baylor Scott & White Hospital in Round Rock. “Urgent care and free-standing emergency centers often don’t have advanced imaging such as ultrasound or CT scans, and they certainly don’t have immediate back-up of orthopedists, cardiologists, pulmonologists, and other specialists.”

Urgent Care Clinic < lower co-pay, add’l fees possible varies^
Free-Standing Emergency Center < lower co-pay, add’l fees possible varies^
Hospital-Affiliated Emergency Room > higher co-pay emergency-certified

* Check with insurance carrier to review plan benefits and determine co-pay and other fees.

^ Often board-certified in family medicine, internal medicine, or pediatrics; sometimes board-certified in emergency medicine.

Urgent Care or Free-Standing Emergency Centers: Perfect for Sickness, Aches, and Minor Injuries

Dr. Tobleman suggests thinking of minor health issues as reasons a teacher might send a child to the school nurse.

Aches: head, stomach, ear

Illnesses: cold, flu, bronchitis, asthma, allergies

Infections: ear, eye, sinus, skin, urinary tract

Injuries: fractures, cuts, sprains, superficial foreign objects

Skin: infections, bites, minor burns, rashes, sores

Symptoms: congestion, cough, sore throat, fever, nausea

Treatments: stitches, staples, splints, x-rays

Diagnoses: mononucleosis, flu, pregnancy, strep A

Services: physicals, blood work, shots

Hospital ER: Best for Severe Symptoms or Injuries

“Major emergencies include severe chest pain, severe shortness of breath, altered mental status, weakness on one side or the other, very high fevers, and severe abdominal pain,” says Dr. Tobleman.

Heart Attack

Chest Pain


One-sided Weakness or Numbness

Severe Bleeding

Open Fractures

Head Injury

Significant Respiratory Distress

Loss of Consciousness

Severe Abdominal Pain

9-1-1: Vital for Life-Threatening Conditions

“A lot of people say, ‘I can drive to the ER faster than [an ambulance] can get here,’” Dr. Tobleman says. “But there are interventions the ambulance crews can do in route to the emergency room.”

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