Let’s face it – the healthcare system as we know it is a mess. It can be confusing and exceedingly difficult to navigate for both patients and providers. It is hard to know where to go and when because so many services seem to overlap. Believe it or not, each segment of the medical industry does have a particular thing it does best. One goal here at BitMED is to provide a forum to have self-help questions, remedies and guidelines available for your use, and to fill gaps where we can. 

Let’s discuss one of those important “know-where-to-go” questions – Urgent Care versus the Emergency Room. You have probably seen public service advertisements in your area about “urgent or emergent” care. Though most people believe that the two are similar, they are in fact very different, and in a medical emergency, time is of the essence. 
So what are the differences? 

Urgent care (or immediate care) facilities are designed to take care of small medical problems and take some of the overflows away from primary care. Things such as lacerations (cuts that may need sutures), colds, flu, bronchitis, strep throat, nausea/vomiting/diarrhea, rashes, strains and sprains, skin infections…things that can be treated successfully with a single visit. Urgent cares can also be used for temporary medication refills in a pinch, though this is generally frowned upon and should go through your primary provider for better continuity of care. An urgent care should NOT be used for routine vaccinations, regular medication refills, annual physicals or referrals for further testing or to specialty clinics. 

For things that are long standing and require further looking into, your regular provider is the place to go. That’s ideally the role of the mysterious “Primary Care” – the first touch point in the system that will help you make connections with any other place you might need to go. But even more importantly, primary care is about prevention. Most people (including providers) would agree that staying out of the doctor’s office, to begin with, is the best route. That’s the role of primary care. 

The ER or ED (emergency room or department) is exactly as the name implies – for emergencies. Life threats, things that can’t wait, serious problems that need treatment now. The buck stops in the ER – whatever needs to be looked at, scanned or treated can be, and if it can’t, the ER can send to where you need to go to have these things done. 

Unfortunately, the confusion between the ER and Urgent Care leads to countless healthcare dollars being wasted. Because it’s so well equipped, the cost of an ER visit is many many times that of the Urgent Care, even if you receive the same exact services. On top of that, inappropriate use of the ER takes up space and resources that might be needed for life threatening emergencies. Another problem with going to the ER is the possibility of being subject to more extensive testing than is necessary for your condition, just because of the setting you’re in. 

So in the world of healthcare, knowing where to go and when is of the utmost importance. 

A simple rule for someone without a lot of medical knowledge might be the following:

  • If I think something is seriously wrong, or might be seriously wrong, I should go to an emergency room or call 911.
  • If I think something can be fixed or figured out without in-depth studies, I should go to the urgent care.
  • If I think something is routine or is not significantly affecting my daily life, I should call my primary care.
  • If I have a general need and questions, or aren’t sure what to do, log onto BitMED! 


By BitMED Provider: Joseph Accursio MD