Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room: Where should you go?

February 4, 2020

by Carrie Vittitoe

It can be hard to know whether an injury or illness should be seen at urgent care or the emergency room. Especially if there has been a minor accident at home, it is common for patients to panic and seek out the ER when an urgent care center would have been able to handle the condition.

Patty Blevins, nurse practitioner at Clark Memorial’s Urgent Care in Clarksville, Indiana, says patients should go to urgent care for acute conditions they could normally see a regular doctor for. Examples include a cold, upper respiratory infection, flu, or strep throat. Patients who experience an aggravation of a chronic condition such as diabetes or hypertension should either call their physician or go to the emergency room.

The priority in the emergency department goes to life-threatening conditions, and up to 45% of people who go to the ER should not really be there, says Bryan Boone, director of nursing and emergency services at Clark Memorial Health.

“We have to triage based upon the severity of symptoms,” he says. “If someone comes in with cold-like symptoms, they are going to be at the bottom of the list of priority. It could result in them waiting a really long time, which is not anything we want. We want to provide a fast service, and we’re trying to improve our processes so care is expedited for everybody.” An influx of patients with cold- and flu-like symptoms, which is often the case in winter, slows down care for everyone, he adds.

Boone says that if a condition is one you’d call an ambulance for, it is a condition that should be seen at an emergency room: Chest pain, shortness of breath, or neurological deficits such as numbness or inability to move part of the body call for the ER.

Some conditions are more difficult for patients to determine whether emergency care is required. For example, abdominal pain could be as minor as a virus or an issue that requires surgical intervention, Boone says. While there are usually limits to what an urgent care can offer in terms of imaging (such as CT scans), urgent care facilities are able to order a scan at the hospital or refer a patient to the emergency room. An accident involving a severe cut to the hand or involving tendons might not be something either an urgent care or emergency room can handle. Boone says that even in the emergency department, these injuries are frequently referred directly to hand surgeons.

According to Blevins, the following conditions could easily be addressed at an urgent care facility in less time and with less expense than an emergency room:

  • Fevers in children
  • Sore throat
  • Cough & congestion (sinus problems)
  • Ear pain
  • Burning with urination
  • Eye redness and discharge
  • Minor lacerations (cuts)
  • Sprains
  • Minor burns

Clark Urgent Care is located at 2205 Greentree North in Clarksville and is open Monday through Friday from 9 am-6pm, Saturday from 9am-5pm and Sunday from 1-5pm.