Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room: When to Go

Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room: When to Go

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room: When to Go

It’s a common misconception that an urgent care center is the same thing as an emergency room. But what’s the difference? How do you know when to go to urgent care or when you should head for the nearest hospital emergency room?

Deciding where to go for some injuries / illnesses is a no-brainer—you have a stuffy nose and cough (go to urgent care); your femur is poking through your skin (go to the emergency room)—but if your condition falls in the gray zone of uncertainty, consult our list below for general guidance on where to go based on your symptoms.

Urgent care centers (UCC) can be thought of as filling the gap between your primary care physician’s office and the hospital’s emergency room (ER). If your symptoms are something you’d typically go to see your regular doctor about, but you can’t wait until the office opens or has availability, then a visit to urgent care is in order. However, if your illness or injury is life-threatening, go to the ER. If you’re not sure whether your condition is life-threatening, go to the ER—just to play it safe.

Sarasota Memorial’s Urgent Care Centers can provide X-rays and lab testing, immunizations and school sports physicals, as well as immediate, comprehensive treatment for colds, flu and other non-life threatening illnesses and injuries. Urgent care clinics are better equipped than a doctor’s office to treat minor, non-life-threatening emergencies, but they do not have the life-saving equipment that is available in emergency rooms and trauma centers like Sarasota Memorial Hospital, nor can they provide emergency surgery. 

“Urgent care centers are not mini-ERs,” said Dr. Reuben Holland, medical director of Sarasota Memorial’s emergency and urgent care centers. “Our centers are equipped to treat many urgent conditions, like minor lacerations, fractures and burns, but they don’t have access to all the life-saving medications, specialists and equipment in an emergency department.”

If you are experiencing signs of a stroke, heart attack or other life-threatening condition, call 911 and go straight to the emergency room. If you’re experiencing chest pain, impaired consciousness, bleeding that won’t stop or difficulty breathing, call 911 and get to the hospital ER as quickly as possible.

Benefits of SMH’s Urgent Care Centers

Not all urgent care centers are equal. Sarasota Memorial’s network of urgent care centers offers quick, convenient access to high-quality care backed by the resources and reputation of Sarasota Memorial Health Care System.

One-stop Shop: Urgent care clinics offer a one-stop-shop healthcare experience. Most of the services patients need are available under one roof: Patients can get X-rays, treatment for broken bones, immunizations, physicals, flu shots and most of their radiology and lab tests right on the spot—no extra trips to a diagnostic lab or imaging center.

Board-certified Staff: Unlike many walk-in clinics, patients at Sarasota Memorial’s UCCs are always treated by a team of board-certified emergency and family medicine doctors.

Extended Hours: SMH’s Urgent Care Centers have extended service hours in the evenings and on weekends (8 a.m. until 8 p.m. everyday), providing a treatment alternative for conditions that can’t wait until you can get in to see your doctor. 

Conveniently Located: Ensuring easy access to immediate care from anywhere in Sarasota County, SMH operates six Urgent Care Centers across the county: Heritage Harbour, University Parkway, St. Armands Circle, Bee Ridge Road, Stickney Point and Venice. 

Get Seen Fast: Urgent cares are less crowded and less busy than typical ERs. Most SMH Urgent Care Center patients are seen by board-certified staff within 30 minutes of arrival. 

Save Money: For minor emergencies, such as ear infections, sprains, cuts, fractures and burns, urgent care centers provide a less costly alternative to an ER. Sarasota Memorial’s UCCs, which accept major insurances, also offer self-pay prices far below what you’d pay for care at an ER. 

Integrated Medical Records: Healthcare providers at Sarasota Memorial’s UCCs can access your medical records from the hospital and from the SMH emergency room, streamlining your treatment.

UCC vs. ER: Know When to Go Guide, A Breakdown by Symptoms 

Go to an Urgent Care Center for:
Non-life-threatening illnesses or injuries for patients older than 3 months, such as—

  • Allergies
  • Animal or insect bites (including tick removal)
  • Bone fractures or simple breaks
  • Bronchitis
  • Congestion, nasal and chest
  • Cough
  • Colds
  • Diarrhea
  • Ear infection
  • Fever
  • Flu
  • General feeling of un-wellness
  • Minor asthma
  • Minor burns
  • Minor cuts and bleeding that may require stitches
  • Pink eye
  • Rashes
  • Sinus infection
  • Sore throat
  • Sports injuries
  • Sprains / strains
  • Stingray or jellyfish stings
  • Strep throat
  • Sunburn or sun poisoning
  • Upper respiratory infection
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Vaccines / immunizations: flu, pneumonia, tetanus, pertussis, shingles
  • Vomiting (that isn’t constant)
  • X-rays and lab tests

Go to the ER for:

True medical emergencies and traumas, or medical conditions that require immediate treatment between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

  • Heart attack symptoms: Chest pain, any suspicion of heart ailment, heart irregularity
  • Stroke symptoms: Weakness on one side, tingling, numbness, facial drooping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bleeding that won’t stop
  • Blood in stool
  • Coughing blood or vomiting blood
  • Debilitating headache
  • Dehydration (weakness, no longer sweating, no urination in 12 hours, confusion, dizziness, nausea)
  • Falls while pregnant
  • Head injuries
  • High fever
  • Infant care, any symptoms if patient is younger than 3 months old
  • Seizures
  • Severe burns / cuts / wounds
  • Severe injury / trauma
  • Shock
  • Shortness of breath / gasping / respiratory distress
  • Slurred speech
  • Sudden paralysis
  • Unconsciousness
  • Vaginal bleeding with pregnancy
  • Visible fracture / broken bones / dislocation
  • Vomiting that won’t stop

Urgent Care for Children

When trying to decide whether to take a child (older than 3 months) to an urgent care center or the ER, it’s important to assess how responsive the child is. If your child is still answering questions coherently and making eye contact, they generally can be seen at an urgent care. When it comes to fever in kids, remember to look at your child before you look at the thermometer. No matter what the thermometer says, if your child is not responsive or is lethargic, get them to the ER. If the child has fever under 101.5 and is acting normally, an urgent care visit most likely will suffice.

Call 911 & Take Child to ER: If a child is in respiratory distress, vomiting to point of lethargy, having seizures or suffered a head injury, call an ambulance and get them to the ER as soon as possible.

Time-saver Tip: Before you head to an SMH Urgent Care Center, visit smh.com/urgentcare online to download the medical forms and fill them out prior to your arrival.

More information: For more tips on when and where to seek medical care, watch Sarasota Memorial’s Urgent Care Fast Facts video series on our YouTube channel. Also, visit smh.com/urgentcare for details on the locations of and services available at SMH’s urgent care centers.