Primary Care Vs. Urgent Care Vs. Emergency Room, Which One Do You Need

Posted August 6, 2019 by Mitch Fraker - See Editorial Guidelines

Today’s healthcare system offers options. This is a great thing, but it can also be confusing. To get the right care, you need to go to the right place. Choosing wrong can cause you to not receive optimum care, and cost you time and money.

One way to determine which type of care you need for a specific illness or injury is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each type of treatment and what their primary focus is.

Primary Care

Primary Focus: Long term health

Strength: Your doctor knows your entire health history, which makes them better able to treat ongoing conditions and look out for your overall health.

Weakness: You may not be able to receive immediate care. Not equipped to handle life threatening situations.


Primary care’s number one job is looking out for your long-term health. Primary Care is the perfect place to be treated for any ongoing conditions that you may have. It’s also where you should go for checkups.

Primary care is the best place to go for non-emergency care because they know your history. You have a relationship with this person, and will likely feel more comfortable with them. However, you may not be able to get an appointment quickly. If it’s a condition that needs quick treatment that isn’t an emergency, urgent care is the best option if you can’t see your primary doctor.

Primary care is also best for most conditions that require testing or a referral to a specialist. If you think you may have the flu, for example, urgent care can certainly test for that. They can also test for STDs, if you aren’t comfortable visiting your primary care doctor for that.

However, conditions that require extensive diagnostic testing are best performed by your primary care doctor. Generally, if you have a good idea of what’s going on, primary or urgent care are both suitable choices.

A virus or standard illnesses like strep throat or bronchitis are great examples. There isn’t a lot of diagnostic testing involved, and it doesn’t require a lot of time to come up with a diagnosis. On the other hand, if your symptoms are strange and don’t fit with these types of common illnesses, you are probably better seeing your primary care doctor.

Fibromyalgia is a good example. It requires several diagnostic tests to diagnose, and it may take more than one visit before the doctor is sure of the diagnosis. A primary care doctor that knows your medical history and all of the tests previously performed will be in a much better position to get to the bottom of what is going on.

Anytime your illness or injury is a non-emergency, primary care is a good choice. However, sometimes you need quick non-emergency medical attention. Primary doctors usually require an appointment, and you may have to wait a few days to be seen. Many illnesses and injuries benefit from quick medical treatment. This is where urgent care shines.

Urgent Care

Primary Focus: Immediate non-emergency treatment

Strength: You can be seen the same day

Weakness: They won’t have your detailed medical history, and you likely won’t have a close relationship with the doctor treating you

urgent care

Urgent care is just what it says. When you require care urgently, but you don’t have a life threatening emergency. Urgent care is perfect when you think you have a common illness that would benefit from quick medical attention like the flu.

Most illnesses can be handled by urgent care. Stomach bugs, bladder infection, and strep throat are examples. Generally, they don’t require lots of testing or extensive knowledge of your health history to diagnose and treat. They aren’t life threatening, but certainly benefit from being treated as early as possible.

Exceptions to this rule are illnesses that are life threatening or require you to be admitted to the hospital. Stomach flu that causes severe dehydration can be best treated by the ER. Any illness that causes a fever over 104 degrees should also be seen by the emergency room because fevers can become dangerous when they are that high.

Urgent care is also suitable for many injuries. If you suspect you have a serious sprain, a break, or require stitches, urgent care can give you the quick treatment that you need without the long wait at the emergency room.

If your injuries are really serious or life threatening, however, don’t hesitate to go to the ER instead. Head injuries that cause you to lose consciousness, cuts with major blood loss, and compound fractures are a few examples of injuries that urgent care isn’t capable of treating.

However, if you’ve cut yourself badly enough to require stitches without being life threatening, or injured your knee in a game of backyard football, urgent care is the perfect choice.

Generally, if it’s a non-emergency that you need quick medical care for, urgent care is a good choice.

Emergency Room

Primary Focus: Life threatening illnesses and injuries

Strength: Immediate care. Facilities, equipment, and expertise to treat serious or life threatening conditions.

Weakness: Long wait time for non-life threatening conditions. Much more expensive

emergency room

The emergency room is for emergencies that are either life threatening or can cause permanent damage. A broken bone, for example, may not be life threatening, but can certainly cause more damage if it isn’t treated quickly and properly.

If you believe that your illness is serious enough that you may require a hospital stay, the emergency room is the best option. If you have an injury that is life threatening or could require more than stitches or an x-ray, you should go to the emergency room.

For example, a toe that might be broken can certainly be handled by urgent care. An arm that is broken in several places is best handled in the emergency room, so you can get the level of care that you need immediately.

Suspected heart attacks and head injuries should be seen by the emergency room as well.

Common Sense Advice

It can be hard to think straight when you have an illness or injury. Still, a little common sense will go a long way.

Basic guidelines are:

Primary care is best for long-term health conditions. Non-life threatening injuries and illnesses can be seen by primary care if you can get them treated within a reasonable timeframe.

Urgent care is best for non-life threatening illnesses and injuries that need urgent medical attention. If it’s too serious to wait for an appointment with your primary care provider, but not serious enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room, choose urgent care.

The emergency room is for illnesses and injuries that are life threatening or at risk of causing permanent damage. If you don’t meet these criteria, you may be in for a long wait.

The No Insurance Conundrum

Many people don’t have insurance, which makes it difficult for them to get proper medical care. Emergency rooms are vastly more expensive than a visit to urgent care or a primary doctor. However, emergency rooms are required to provide treatment regardless of ability to pay. Doctors offices are allowed to request proof of insurance or proof of payment up front.

This leads many people to go to the emergency room for treatment for non-emergency conditions because they can’t afford to pay for an office visit. Then they receive expensive hospital bills. In many cases, these go unpaid, which then raises the cost of emergency healthcare. It also slows things down in the emergency room, making wait times longer.

There are solutions to this problem. The key is to be proactive.

Talking to Primary Care/Urgent Care

It’s a good idea to talk to different primary care providers and urgent care centers before you need them. Ask them what their policies are. Do they accept patients without insurance? Do they allow payments? Do they provide discounts for those who are uninsured? Many offices will at the very least offer discounts for cash paying patients.

Cash Only Please

In fact, there’s a new medical trend. Practices that only accept cash payments. These practices are typically smaller and spend more time with their patients. They can also offer cheaper rates because they don’t have the overhead associated with billing insurance companies.

Most of these practices charge a monthly or annual fee for unlimited basic care. This makes it financially feasible for most, and ensures that they can get the care they need.


Telemedicine is another option for those that don’t have insurance. There are practices that only practice telemedicine, and is often a part of cash only practices as well. Doctors are allowed to diagnose and treat most conditions over the phone or through video chat. They can give you a diagnosis,  and send prescriptions into your local pharmacy.

Telemedicine is seen as more cost effective than traditional office visits, and more convenient for the patient as well. Telemedicine laws and insurance coverage vary from state to state. It is certainly a cost effective alternative to traditional office visits, particularly for conditions you might visit urgent care for.

Free Clinics

Free healthcare is provided by county health departments, but there can be long wait times. Many areas offer free healthcare clinics or payments on a sliding scale as well. You may be required to submit proof of income to qualify. You can find free clinics in your area through a google search.

Proper medical care is important. Seeking the right type of care will allow you to get the best possible treatment for your condition. You should always use your best judgment and follow your instincts when seeking treatment.

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