What Is The Difference Between Emergency Centers And Urgent Care Centers?

Updated on October 6, 2020
Emergency Department: Doctors, Nurses and Surgeons Move Seriously Injured Patient Lying on a Stretcher Through Hospital Corridors. Medical Staff in a Hurry Move Patient into Operating Theater.

Emergency and urgent care centers may seem similar, but they’re quite different in how they handle their day-to-day operations. As a patient, it’s important to understand these dissimilarities as they might come in handy when trying to find the right facility for your health issue. 

Although urgent care centers have been around since the 20th century, many people still don’t understand the functions of these medical facilities. As such, they end up reporting to the wrong institution whenever they face an emergency health problem. This article aims to distinguish emergency from urgent centers that you’ll find in various hospitals, like Idaho Falls Community Hospital, while clearly stating each of their functions.

Primary Purpose

The main difference between these two facilities is in what they do and how they operate. An emergency center, as the name suggests, is designed to handle health emergencies. Also known as casualty department or emergency room, this medical center is known for its specialization on the treatment of patients who present themselves at the hospital with no prior appointment—this is as far as its similarities with some urgent care centers go. It’s worth noting that emergency physicians are trained to provide treatment for a wide variety of injuries and illnesses, given the fact that an unplanned attendance of patients is expected at any time. 

Urgent centers, on the other hand, can be regarded as a bridge connecting emergency room services and a primary physician’s care. Once a patient has met an urgent care nurse and their condition is categorized as one that requires the attention of emergency physicians, they can be easily transferred to an emergency room, especially if the facility is affiliated with a well-equipped general hospital. 

As earlier stated, these facilities first became popular in the 20th century and have since evolved to serve patients who need medical care at night or during the weekends. In essence, an urgent center might be set up to work as an extension of the primary care services and commences its full services immediately after the doctor’s daily shift comes to an end. Therefore, if you need primary medical services but end up running late, you can still get them at the urgent care center.

Since urgent centers take up the responsibilities of the primary doctor after normal working hours, the nurses on duty can arrange a follow-up appointment for the patients. Of course, the nurse will have to take a look at the primary physician’s schedule before informing the patient on when they should come back. 

Although the overall operation may differ from one hospital to another, they all follow a general book of rules. There have been many cases wherein patients who reported to an emergency center were found to have misjudged their condition and would have been better off visiting an urgent center instead. Hopefully the differences explained in this article will save you your precious time and money if you find yourself in a similar dilemma. 

How Do These Centers Operate?

Another difference between an urgent and emergency care unit lies how they go about their respective businesses. This is the reason why you should be careful when deciding on which type of facility to visit since not all of them fit your needs. Imagine your friend passes out at a party due to unknown causes; which medical center will be ideal for their condition?  You guessed it right—an emergency room is the place to visit.

You might be wondering why an urgent center wouldn’t be ideal for such an issue. Well, it comes down to the general rules of operation. At an emergency center, patients are served according to the severity of their particular conditions. For instance, if one has a life-threatening issue, like a heart attack, they’re prioritized over the others. This process is referred to as triaging, with the lowest class being Level 1 and the ones with more urgent issues falling in Level 5.

However, sometimes, the triage stage is bypassed if the condition is too critical for any formalities to be carried out. For that reason, for a condition that needs immediate care, an emergency room would be the best option. With this kind of functioning, care by appointment is quite uncommon, although not impossible, given the recent innovations in the healthcare industry.

On the other hand, you’re likely to find some people coming in with appointment letters at an urgent care center. However, the general rule of operation in this facility is on the basis of first-come-first-serve. Therefore, regardless of your situation, you might have to wait for your turn to arrive. Of course, this will depend on the number of staff available and the hospital’s policies. Remember, an urgent care nurse may refer you to the emergency room if they feel that your condition requires advanced medical care.

Are They Equipped With The Necessary Machines?

The answer to this question is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ First, you ought to keep in mind that an urgent care center is not designed to handle most of the complex health issues. As such, the nurses at this facility will only treat you to the level they deem stable or as far as their expertise and tools allow. Going by this fact, you can already deduce that there’s limited equipment in most urgency centers. Again, this is highly dependent on the hospital as some facilities have sophisticated lab testing and x-ray machines.

As for an emergency care center, you’re likely to find almost every medical machine necessary for the treatment of various severe conditions. An ambulance or a number of them are also among the necessities that an emergency center should have, not to mention the fact that these ambulances are usually fully-equipped with medical supplies and personnel. Talking of personnel, an emergency department has physicians trained in ‘a little bit of everything.’ In other words, they can handle just about any health emergency to the point where the patient comes back to stable condition. 

Operation Time

It might not seem important, but the operation time of these facilities is a crucial information to have in case something happens late into the night. Emergency centers, as you might have realized, work for 24 hours every day of the week. Therefore, whenever there’s a health emergency—say, a car accident—these facilities will be ready to help. The physicians work in shifts, so you’ll find the nurses well-equipped to handle any problems. However, the number of physicians may be adjusted to reflect the capacity of patients at any given time.

Urgency centers, on the other hand, rarely work beyond midnight. They can only do so if there’s an overwhelming number of patients requiring their services beyond the normal closing time. Therefore, if you want to visit one of the urgency care units, you can do so between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m., or midnight. One thing that these facilities share with emergency centers is their availability throughout the week.

So, when is the best time to visit an urgent care unit?  Of course, as a patient, there’s no right or wrong time to visit any medical facility for that matter. However, it’s important to note that urgent care services are in high demand early in the morning, at noon, and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Therefore, if your situation doesn’t require urgent attention and you’re looking for a period wherein you can be served as quickly as possible, then, you can use the information above to find the hours with less traffic. 

Cost Of Services 

As earlier stated, urgent care and emergency care centers are designed to handle various health issues of varying severity. However, sometimes, you might find that both facilities can handle your situation. So, what makes them different from one another in such a case?  Well, the cost of service will vary significantly.

Apart from offering primary medical care services, urgent care centers are designed to make the cost of healthcare more affordable to people from different financial backgrounds. Therefore, these facilities are likely to cost a lot less than a visit to an emergency center. Keep in mind that the latter also uses ambulance and extra personnel to attend to the needs of each patient. At the end of the day, you might spend a fortune paying for a service that might have otherwise cost less. Nonetheless, always remember that you should prioritize, if possible, the quality, availability, and reliability of a service over the financial expenses.

So, now that you already know the difference between an emergency center and urgent center, when should you visit either of them?  Read on to find out more!

When Should You Visit An Urgent Care Center?

Just to recap the discussion above, you can visit an urgent treatment center when in need of urgent medical attention, but isn’t too severe to be considered life-threatening. Contrary to what some people would like to believe, one can hardly think straight when in pain. As such, they’re not in a position to determine the severity of their condition and decide on which facility to visit. If you’re the one taking care of the patient, try not to panic and see if the sickness falls under one of the following categories:

  • Cuts and grazes
  • Skin rashes
  • Ear and throat infections
  • Fever
  • Eye problems
  • Minor injuries
  • Strains and sprains
  • Broken limbs (depends on the gravity)

These conditions can be treated at any urgent care center since they’re not life-threatening. 

When To Call The Emergency Number

Emergency centers can either be accessed by driving to the facility or calling for an ambulance. However, the situation must be serious enough for you to opt for this option because it costs almost twice or thrice the price that you’ll incur at an urgent care center. Therefore, if you’re the caregiver or guardian, you should assess the situation as quickly as possible to determine its severity. The following conditions qualify for an emergency care service:

  • Inconsistent or stopped breathing
  • Extreme chest pains or pressure
  • Choking
  • Head injuries that are accompanied by fainting, passing out, or confusion
  • Lighting strike or electric shock
  • Third-degree burns
  • Seizure

You don’t see the condition in the list above?  Call your primary physician or a local hospital and describe your symptoms. The healthcare provider will guide you on the next step, which will save you time and money.

What To Pack

Preparation and emergency don’t seem to go hand in hand, especially when it’s anything related to one’s health. However, it’s always important to carry with you some important documents to ensure a smooth service provision. Also, this will make the work of the physicians a lot simpler as they try to diagnose your condition and find the best treatment options. So, what should you pack?  Here’s a list to keep in mind:

  •  List of current medications (if any)
  • The patient’s medical history
  • Personal doctor’s contacts
  • Insurance information
  • A photo ID for legal reasons

Keep in mind that these items may be required either at an urgent center, walk-in clinic, or emergency center. Therefore, if you’re the patient or in charge of someone else, make sure that you have them ready.


Although these facilities are clearly designed for quite different purposes, they both play significant roles in the healthcare industry. Inasmuch as they might offer duplicate services at some point, it’s not recommended to substitute one for the other unless you’re aware of the repercussions.

Emergency rooms or centers are well-equipped to handle serious medical situations that seem life-threatening, like loss of breath, difficulty in breathing, or stroke. As such, they’re more expensive than urgent care centers whose purpose is to deal with basic health issues and urgent conditions that don’t seem life-threatening. 

Regardless of which facility you choose to visit, make sure to carry with you all the necessary documents that might be required by the healthcare providers. Since emergencies happen any time, it’s always a good idea to keep all your health-related documents in one place. This way, it’ll be easier to retrieve them and avoid delays that might prove crucial in such scenarios.

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