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The Clinic, Urgent Care, ER? Where Should You Go?

When you think you need medical attention, do you know where to go to get it? Today there are more and more places popping up that can help, and they all describe themselves using different words.

The important thing for you to understand is the differences in the care given at each place and how quickly you can get help. Insurance and price considerations can all be different too.

Here’s a handy guide explaining some of the main differences between various locations and when you should consider going to each.

Your Doctor’s Office

This is where you should consider going first if your medical condition isn’t an emergency – an injury or illness that poses an immediate risk to your life or long term health. Your primary care provider is most familiar with your health and health history and will be able to determine the most appropriate care for you.

Providers’ offices are open during normal business hours and are starting to expand evening and weekend hours to help accommodate people’s busy schedules. Some offices also offer same day appointments. If you’re not sure about your providers’ office hours or appointment offerings, check their website or give them a call.

If you don’t have a primary care provider, it’s a good idea to find one before you need one. Getting regular check-ups, wellness information, vaccines and other preventive health care is important to stay healthy. Your provider may be a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant.

Retail Clinics

This is where you should consider going for minor problems or medical conditions that don’t require immediate attention but you want them checked out as soon as possible.

These clinics are often found in retail settings like malls, pharmacies, stores, or supermarkets. They offer evening and weekend hours and no appointment is necessary. The services these clinics offer can differ, so it’s a good idea to call the location you plan on going to ahead of time to make sure they can help you.

The care is usually provided by nurse practitioners, physician assistants, or pharmacists with additional training.

Choose retail clinic care locations for non-emergency conditions including:

  • Bronchitis
  • Diarrhea
  • Ear infection
  • Ear wax removal
  • Female bladder infection
  • Flu/influenza
  • Insect stings
  • Minor low back pain
  • Minor rashes
  • Mononucleosis
  • Motion sickness
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Pink eye
  • Poison ivy
  • Ringworm
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Sinus infection
  • Sore throat
  • Wart removal (common, plantar, flat)

Urgent and Walk-in Clinics

This is where you should consider going if your medical condition needs medical care but isn’t an emergency.

Urgent and walk-in clinics are often associated with health care systems. They may be in a hospital or a stand-alone facility. Like retail clinics, they have expanded hours and days of operation and no appointment is necessary.

Compared to emergency rooms, urgent and walk-in care clinics usually have shorter wait times and more cost savings.

The care is usually provided by doctors, unlike retail clinics.

Choose urgent and walk-in clinics for mild to moderate conditions including:

  • Allergy symptoms
  • Animal and bug bites
  • Bladder infection
  • Cuts, scrapes and lacerations
  • Ear infection
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Infection
  • Rashes and other skin conditions
  • Respiratory illness
  • Sore throat
  • Sprains and injuries
  • Stomach pain
  • Other health concerns that can’t wait for an appointment with your doctor

Emergency Room

This is where you should go for serious medical conditions that need attention immediately. If a situation is life-threatening, call 911 – don’t try to drive yourself. Emergency responders are trained to transport you to the facility that can best help you.

Emergency departments are designed to handle life-threatening conditions. The most seriously ill or injured people will be seen first. Whenever possible, consider your primary care provider or retail, walk-in, and urgent clinics for non-life-threatening medical conditions. In most cases, they can save you time and money. But, you’ll never be turned away from emergency care.

Choose emergency room for emergency conditions including:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Broken bones
  • Changes in mental status, such as confusion
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Coughing or vomiting blood
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Severe burns
  • Severe vomiting or diarrhea
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness, changes in vision or loss of consciousness
  • Sudden or severe pain
  • Suspected poisoning or drug overdose
  • Uncontrolled bleeding

Closing Thoughts

Health concerns can be frightening. That’s why so many kinds of clinics—retail, urgent care, and walk-in – are available to help you with problems that can’t wait until you can see your doctor. Nearly all of your health care needs should be handled at one of these locations.

The emergency room is designed for conditions that are truly life-threatening. Go there for immediate treatment to save life, limb, or eyesight, but not for lesser problems. Not only is emergency care more expensive, but you may wait a very long time for treatment of problems that aren’t true emergencies.

Meet the Author

Stephen Andrew Cole, MD is a board-certified family medicine physician at Aurora Health Center in  Walworth, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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