At some point, most of us will likely have to make the tough call: Find a nearby urgent care clinic or head to the ER now?

toERIn a true emergency that requires an ambulance, there usually is little doubt that medical help is immediately needed, but often accidents or sudden ailments can occur that present the ER versus clinic dilemma – whether it is glass in someone’s foot or a severe ear ache.

With young children, the helpful guidance of an on-call pediatrician can be a lifesaver, but what should you do when you don’t have a medical professional on standby? What factors should you consider when making the ER or clinic decision?

“Urgent care centers are primarily used to treat patients who have an injury or illness that requires immediate care but isn’t serious enough to warrant a visit to a hospital emergency room,” according to David Kim, MD, facility medical director of Memorial Care Medical Group in Long Beach, California, in an article in Prevention.

For most physicians, the key factor is if an injury or illness is non life-threatening. According to major medical insurance provider Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the only time it is necessary to visit an emergency room is if you have suffered a major trauma or have a life-threatening injury or illness.

But knowing whether an urgent care clinic is your best bet isn’t always that clear cut; however, some medical professionals advise that hospitals have more resources and specialists at their disposal to treat more severe problems.



Kim advises if there is a chance you are having a heart attack or show signs of a stroke, the ER is the best option. Although the following list of 10 signs and symptoms isn’t comprehensive, it’s a good place to start, Kim says.

Head straight to the ER if you have any of the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Severe bleeding or head trauma
  • Poisoning or suspected overdose
  • Seizure or loss of consciousness
  • Sudden loss of vision or blurred vision
  • Sudden weakness or tingling
  • Severe headache
  • Confusion



Because most urgent care centers or after-hours clinics are outfitted with x-ray equipment, you can head there first for sprains and fractures, in most case, Kim says.

Sean McNeeley, MD, medical director for University Hospitals Urgent Care in the Cleveland area, for most cuts and lacerations, head to a clinic instead of waiting it out – possibly for hours – at the ER. He added; however, that really deep cuts – meaning you see bone, have cut a tendon or think you could lose a limb, an ER visit may be required.

Also, if you think you have the flu, heading to the clinic may be the best option to receive appropriate medical treatment in the quickest manner possible. Why wait around for hours at an ER when a nurse practitioner or physician assistant at a local clinic could treat you quickly and get you on your way back to bed so you can begin recuperating?

Blue Cross and Blue Shield recommends visiting an urgent care center for the following:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Sore throats
  • Sprains
  • Animal bites
  • Flu symptoms
  • Minor burns
  • Broken bones
  • Minor injuries



  1. You still likely need to follow up with your primary care physician.
  2. Clinics may not want to be the source you use to refill maintenance prescriptions.
  3. There are some emergencies urgent care clinics cannot handle.

The next time you have to pick between an ER and an urgent care clinic, hopefully you will be better prepared to make the best decision for your situation. According to a recent article by Urgent Care Locations, understanding the differences – and similarities – between urgent care and emergency room service offerings can be very helpful. In fact, a recent study found that nearly 50 percent of the diagnoses at ERs could be treated by urgent care centers at a fraction of the cost and wait time. Another factor to consider, a nationwide survey showed there are more than 9,600 urgent care centers (with this number ever growing) versus 4,500 emergency rooms, so there are likely convenient options available near you.