Emergency vs Urgent Care

The following guidelines are intended to familiarize you with your options before you need them. If you’re currently in need of care and you’re not sure where to go, please call your medical facility or advice nurse. 

If you think you or your family member is experiencing a medical or psychiatric emergency, call 911 immediately.

When you need prompt medical attention, these are your options: 

  • Emergency Rooms
  • Urgent Care Centers 
  • Telemedicine
  • Advice Nurse
  • Your Primary Care Physician 

Below, we provide some basic information on when you might choose one over the other.

Emergency Rooms

You might be tempted to go to the emergency room (ER) for any medical need that requires prompt attention. But this may not always be the best choice. At the ER, life and death emergencies are treated first. 

If your problem is not life-threatening, you might have to wait — sometimes for hours. And an ER visit will cost you more than the other options.

What’s an emergency symptom?

A medical emergency is an acute injury or illness that poses an immediate risk to a person’s life or long-term health. 

Examples of symptoms that may be a medical emergency include: 

  • Chest pains
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Large, open wounds
  • Major burns
  • Major broken bones
  • Major injuries
  • Psychiatric emergency (immediate danger to self or others)
  • Severe, persistent bleeding that cannot be stopped
  • Spinal injuries
  • Sudden changes in vision
  • Sudden decrease in or loss of consciousness
  • Sudden onset of severe abdominal pain
  • Sudden weakness or slurred speech

Urgent Care Centers

Urgent Care can be a good choice when you need care fast, and your Primary Care Physician is unavailable. Urgent Care Centers can treat many minor injuries and ailments, and you likely won't have to wait as long as at the ER. You’ll probably pay less, too.

What is an urgent symptom?

An urgent care situation is one that requires prompt medical attention, generally within 24 to 48 hours, but is not a medical emergency. 

Examples of urgent care situations include: 

  • Backaches
  • Coughs
  • Earaches
  • Frequent urination or burning sensation when urinating
  • Minor broken bones (like a finger)
  • Minor infections
  • Small cuts
  • Sore throats
  • Sprains
  • Strains
  • Rashes


Want to see a doctor without leaving home? Many insurance carriers offer online virtual visits 24/7. It allows health care professionals to evaluate, diagnose, and treat you remotely--using your mobile device, tablet, or computer. 

When you don’t require a hands on exam or tests, a virtual visit can be a good, and low cost, option.

For access to a virtual visit, you’ll likely need to register through your insurance carrier. Consider setting this up before you need care, so it’s immediately available when you need it. 

Examples of minor conditions that might be treated with a virtual visit: 

  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Colds/flu
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Infections
  • Insect bites
  • Migraine/headache
  • Pinkeye
  • Rashes
  • Sore throats
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Vomiting

Advice Nurse

Most health insurance carriers offer a free advice nurse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you or a family member is not feeling well, and you’re not sure what to do, an advice nurse can provide guidance. 

  • 24x7 availability
  • Useful for after-hours concerns without leaving your home
  • Provide guidance on what to do / where to go 

An advice nurse can also give medical advice about how to care for your illness or injury at home. 

Primary Care Physician

If your medical issue is not urgent, it's usually best to see your doctor. Your doctor knows your health history, has access your medical records, and can provide you with follow-up care or refer you to specialists.

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