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What to Expect: Urgent Care vs. Walk-in Clinic vs. Emergency Room

cartoon of urgent care, emergency room or walk-in with slingshot health branded helicopter

In the event of a critical, life-threatening situation, call 911.

The average wait time to book an appointment with a primary care doctor is 24 days in major US cities. As the wait time to see primary care doctors continues to rise, alternatives like urgent care centers and walk-in clinics have seen tremendous growth to meet demand. But what’s the difference between urgent care centers and walk-in clinics? Are they different? What’s the difference between emergency rooms and urgent care?

 

What’s the difference?

Emergency rooms are extensions of hospitals that provide care around the clock for critical emergency medical conditions. For non life-threatening situations that require care within 24 hours, urgent care and walk-in clinics help reduce the burden on emergency rooms. While the two are similar, urgent care centers have the capability to treat more serious medical conditions. Retail walk-in clinics are typically set up inside or adjacent to a large retailer or pharmacy and are staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Examples include CVS Minute Clinic and RediClinic.

Urgent care and walk-in clinics are typically open 7 days a week, but are not always open 24 hours a day. Check your local urgent care and walk-in clinic for hours and services offered since this varies location to location.

To help you decide what option is right for your medical condition, it’s important to weigh the following: (1) urgency, (2) staff, and (3) cost of visit

 

Urgency

Emergency Situations

In emergency situations that appear life-threatening, call 911 immediately. According to Mt. Sinai, examples of emergency situations include:

  • Compound fracture, which involves a bone protruding through the skin
  • Convulsions, seizures, or loss of consciousness
  • Deep knife wounds or gunshot wounds
  • Fever in a newborn less than 3 months old
  • Heavy, uncontrollable bleeding
  • Moderate to severe burns
  • Poisoning
  • Pregnancy-related problems
  • Serious head, neck, or back injury
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Severe chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • Heart attack symptoms, such as chest pain that lasts longer than two minutes
  • Stroke symptoms, such as vision loss, sudden numbness, weakness, slurred speech, or confusion
  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings

Urgent Non-Emergencies

Emergency rooms can technically treat anything from the flu to life-threatening conditions. However, more serious urgent situations can take priority, leading to potential multi-hour waiting times for non-emergency treatment. Additionally, emergency room visits can be very costly.

For urgent non-emergencies that need to be attended to within the next 24 hours, seek out an urgent care facility. Walk-in clinics may also be appropriate depending on the level of care needed. Walk-in clinics typically treat less serious conditions and do not offer x-rays or MRIs. For many retail walk-in locations, you can check online what services they offer. When in doubt, call.

According to Mt. Sinai, urgent medical conditions aren’t considered emergencies but still require medical attention within 24 hours. Some examples include:

  • Accidents and falls
  • Cuts that don’t involve much blood but might need stitches
  • Breathing difficulties, such as mild to moderate asthma
  • Diagnostic services, including X-rays and laboratory tests
  • Eye irritation and redness
  • Fever or flu
  • Minor broken bones and fractures in fingers or toes
  • Moderate back problems
  • Severe sore throat or cough
  • Skin rashes and infections
  • Sprains and strains
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, or dehydration

Staff

Depending on where you go, you may see a doctor (MD), a nurse practitioner (NP), and/or a physician assistant (PA).

A Physician Assistant (PA) has 2–3 years of professional schooling. They are licensed to perform physical examinations, diagnose illnesses, request lab tests, prescribe medications, and even assist in surgery.

A Nurse Practitioner (NP) must be a registered nurse before they can go on to pursue a more advanced education and clinical training. This can include a master’s or doctorate degree with specialization on certain medical fields, like child health, women’s health. Like the PA, they can also take medical history, diagnose illness, order tests, and prescribe medication.

While NPs and PAs may not have the same training as MDs, they are still qualified and licensed to do many of the same functions as a primary care doctor. For many non-emergency medical conditions like urinary tract infections, sinus infections, and flu, an NP or a PA has the ability to diagnose and prescribe medications as needed.

At walk-in clinics, you’ll see either an NP or a PA. In emergency rooms and urgent care clinics, there is always an MD on staff in addition to NPs and PAs. Emergency rooms and urgent care clinics also have MRI and X-ray machines available as needed.

 

Cost of Visit

Urgent care and walk-in clinics are typically cheaper than emergency room visits. They serve the need for faster medical consultation without the expense of emergency room visits.

See the differences in urgent care and emergency room costs below for the same services:

Allergies:

  • UC: $ 97
  • ER: $345

Acute bronchitis

  • UC: $127
  • ER: $595

Ear ache

  • UC: $110
  • ER: 400

Generally speaking, emergency rooms are the most expensive followed by urgent care followed by walk-in clinics.

Unfortunately, many emergency rooms and urgent care centers tend to state an initial price that is much lower than what the patient is ultimately asked to pay. Some retail walk-in clinics list flat prices online.

Tips on Not Getting Hit with a Surprise Urgent Care or Emergency Room Bill:

  1. If your medical condition allows it, try booking an appointment at a walk-in clinic or on Slingshot Health. That way you know exactly how much you’re paying beforehand.
  2. Confirm with your insurer which facilities are in-network. Most surprise bills result from being treated by a healthcare professional that is not included in the insurer’s network of providers. Since online information can be out of date, it is best to call your insurance company.
  3. When you do get an exorbitant bill because of an out-of-network provider, try to negotiate with the provider and the insurer. Explain that the treatment you needed required services beyond the insurer’s network. In some cases, the provider and the insurer can agree to lower the cost.


About Slingshot Health

Slingshot Health is a health tech startup that brings top healthcare providers and patients together. Patients bid on the cost of services and healthcare providers accept bids based on availability. Slingshot Health is unique in that it is a mutual marketplace putting both patients and providers back in control. Visit us at slingshothealth.com.