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Urgent Care Patient Education

The ER or the Urgent Care Center:
Do You Know Where to Go?

Making choices can be tough—especially when you or someone in your family needs quick medical attention and you don’t have much time to decide where to go for help. Should you choose an urgent care center or the emergency room?

Knowing where to go for appropriate care ahead of time is important. “Studies show that half of all emergency room visits are not for true emergencies,” says Dennis McGill, MD, medical director of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset’s Emergency Department. “The less of an emergency you have, the longer you may have to wait to get the care you need because patients in life-or-death situations will be treated first.”

What’s the Difference?

An emergency room and urgent care center offer some of the same types of services, such as X-rays and blood tests. But they differ in important ways. For example, an emergency room is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and treats patients with life-threatening illnesses or injuries.

“An urgent care center has limited hours and is designed to treat minor medical problems that require prompt attention but are not life-threatening,” says Dr. McGill, who also staffs Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset Urgent Care in Hillsborough. For instance, broken bones, sprains, cuts, even fevers and infections all can be treated at an urgent care center. “Many urgent care centers also provide routine medical care, such as flu shots, wellness checkups and school physicals,” Dr. McGill adds.

Most urgent care centers are open evenings and weekends. They also see patients on a walk-in basis. And waiting time can be shorter than in an emergency room. Many urgent care centers also provide services at a lower cost.

What’s a True Emergency?

Although this is not a complete list, here are examples of true emergency situations:

  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Sudden, severe pain, such as a headache or stomachache
  • Head or back injuries
  • Bleeding or vomiting that won’t stop
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Poisoning
  • Major burns and cuts
  • Choking

What’s an Urgent Care Need?

An urgent care center is the right place to go for medical problems that need immediate—but not emergency—attention. Examples of these types of medical situations include:

  • Minor sprains
  • Small cuts
  • Sore throats
  • Fevers
  • Ear infections

“Even though an urgent care center can provide important medical treatment, if you are in doubt, go to the nearest emergency room or call 911,” says Mary Wieczorek, RN, director of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset’s Emergency Department and Urgent Care Center.