Should I Use Urgent Care, the Emergency Room, or 911?


Walk in clinic kirkland

When illness or injury leaves you in need of medical care, it can be hard in the moment to know who to turn to. From your primary care physician to urgent care and emergency room centers or even 911, every medical center fills as unique role in providing care. Understanding how they work together and which symptoms warrant a visit to which medical center, can ensure you get the treatment you need promptly and cost-effectively.

Primary care physician

Your primary care physician is always the best person to turn to first when you’re hurt or sick. Since they knows you and your medically history best, they’re the most able to make informed choices on your behalf. Many primary care doctors now provide appointments on the weekends and evenings, as well. Even with such wider availability, your primary care physician can’t be available to you 24/7. As such, urgent and emergency room care centers are there to fill in.

Urgent care

Around 3 million patients will visit an urgent care center each week. The role of urgent care clinics is to provide care when your primary care physician is unavailable or your symptoms are such that you can’t wait for an appointment. They are type of same-day walk in clinic that operate during and after business hours and on weekends. As many as 85% are open seven days a week.

Many have on-site diagnostic equipment and are able to handle a wide variety of medical conditions which require immediate attention. In most situations, they’ll cost less than if you use the emergency room phone number, but are not designed for true emergencies.

Some of the symptoms which warrant a trip to an urgent care clinic include:

  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting
  • A fever that isn’t accompanied by a rash
  • Painful urination
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Ear pain
  • A minor trauma such as a sprain or shallow cut

While often more economical than emergency room care, urgent care centers cannot treat as wide a variety of ailments. For instance, one in five urgent care centers cannot provide fracture care.

Emergency Room

Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, an emergency room is where you go when need treatment for a severe or life-threatening condition. Emergency rooms are staffed and equipped for complex and critical needs. With the widest range of services available of any after hours care clinic, an emergency room is the most likely place to have the equipment needed to treat your condition. For life- or limb-threatening situations or medical conditions which require rapid or advanced treatment such as surgery, an emergency room is your best bet. The specialized care they can offer doesn’t come without a price, however: Emergency room visits tend to be the most expensive form of care and often involve a long wait for treatment.

If possible, call your emergency room phone number before you rush over. If you can alert them that you’re coming, they’ll be able to prepare. Calling the emergency room phone number before you leave can also cut down on your wait time. Likewise, a call beforehand will usually connect you with a triage nurse who can evaluate your symptoms and let you know if the emergency room is really the best place for you, or if you should call 911 for an ambulance.

When to call 9-1-1

If someone clearly needs emergency care, it can still be hard to know if you should drive them yourself or call an ambulance. When in doubt, call an ambulance, particularly if the only other option is to drive yourself or if the situation involves a heart attack or stroke. Paramedics will be able to provide potentially life saving treatment on the way to the ER.


Even knowing the difference between urgent care, the emergency room, and when you use 9-1-1, it can be hard in the moment to make the best decision regarding care. To prevent unnecessary waits or medical expenses from an emergency room visit that could have been addressed by urgent care, consider keeping your local emergency room phone number by the phone. It can be a reminder to you or anyone else who finds themselves in need of medical attention to call the emergency room phone number first, before making hasty decisions on where to go.

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