Urgent Care or ER?

You’re sick. You need medicine. And you have zero chance of seeing your doctor today. Now what?

We’ve all been there: what starts as a tiny cough Monday morning has turned into a full-blown fever, headache, and sore throat by Tuesday afternoon. You know you need to see a doctor, but your primary care provider is booked and you need to be better in time for a meeting on Friday. Should you head to an urgent care or ER? In your flu-addled state, it’s hard enough to stay hydrated and vertical, much less run a cost-benefit analysis.

Urgent Care or ER? We’re Here to Help

We know it can be hard to decide which option is best — and most cost-effective — for a given ailment. However, armed with knowledge, statistics, and, when necessary, ibuprofen, you can make the right decision, get to the right establishment, and receive the right level of care.

Urgent Care vs ER

hospital icon
Urgent Care Centers

According to the Urgent Care Association of America, an urgent care center is “healthcare provided on a walk-in, no-appointment basis for acute illness or injury that is not life- or limb-threatening, and is either beyond the scope or availability of the typical primary care practice or retail clinic.” According to Debt.org, they evolved in the 1990s to “serve the 73% of Americans who say they have no access to their primary care doctors at night or on weekends.”

According to Cigna Medical Group, urgent cares are perfectly suited to treat the following types of illnesses and injuries:

  • Flu and cold
  • Coughs and sore throat
  • High fevers
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain
  • Cuts and severe scrapes
  • Broken bones
  • Minor injuries and burns
  • Sports injuries
  • Ear infections
  • Animal or insect bites
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Bronchitis
  • Breathing discomfort, such as moderate asthma
  • Urinary tract infections
  • X-rays and lab tests
  • Abdominal pain
  • Minor back pain
  • (and more!)

Benefits of going to an Urgent Care

  • Open late and on weekends and holidays
  • Staffed by doctors and nurses
  • Offer nearly all the services available at a traditional doctor’s office
  • Have x-ray machines and lab testing on site
  • Nearly all procedures covered by insurance
  • Average cost is much lower — around $125-160 per patient per visit

Bottom Line: Urgent care centers are equipped to handle all non-life-threatening injuries and illnesses. A visit costs, on average, $125-160, and our clinic takes many insurance plans.

ambulance icon

Stand-alone ERs

Stand-alone ERs offer an important service: they can treat nearly any medical emergency, but they have many people worried. According to the Denver Post, critics are concerned that patients may “mistake these new ERs for urgent care clinics” and “run up huge bills, increasing their own payments — particularly with high-deductible plans that are more common today — and everyone else’s insurance costs.”

Keep in mind: stand-alone ERs are still ERs, and while they can play a key role, they should be reserved for emergencies only. Chest pains? Head to an ER (stand-alone or otherwise). In fact, head to an ER for any of the following:

  • Allergic reactions to food and animal or bug bites
  • Chest pain
  • Constant vomiting
  • Continuous bleeding
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Deep wounds
  • Weakness or pain in a leg or arm
  • Head injuries
  • Unconsciousness

Otherwise? Your primary care provider or an urgent care will do.

Bottom Line: Stand-alone ERs are intended for life- or limb-threatening injuries and illnesses only. They are more expensive than urgent care and retail clinics, running $400-$2,000, and sometimes much higher.

Urgent Care or ER: Cost Comparison

Take a look at this chart from Debt.org that shows just a few common reasons people go to the emergency room, when they could have gone to an urgent care center. Urgent care prices are based on cash pay and may vary by visit depending on tests and x-rays needed.

ConditionEmergency Room CostUrgent Care Cost
Acute Bronchitis$595$265
Sore Throat$525$160
Pink Eye$370$160
Strep Throat$531$180
Upper Respiratory Infection$486$160
Urinary Tract Infection$665$165
exclamation point icon

Still Can’t Decide Whether to go to an Urgent Care or ER?

The real question that should be answered when deciding between an urgent care and emergency rooms is: Why am I going?

If the answer is: “Because I have life-threatening injuries or symptoms,” then the choice is simple: Go to an emergency room. Otherwise, an urgent care center should do.

If you are in Colorado’s Denver metro area, stop by Advanced Urgent Care & Occupational Medicine. You can also click here to schedule your in-clinic or telehealth visit online. Don’t see an available time? You can still walk-in anytime 7 days a week.