Differences between the ER and Urgent Care

Rising healthcare costs and compromised emergency services spurred the development of other options when health concerns require attention but are not life-threatening. Such a development expands not only treatment choices but also medical career opportunities, including those in practical nursing.

The primary differences between emergency room (ER) and urgent care involve medical services offered and conditions treated. In addition, they are different environments with unique advantages offered to patients.  

Working Environment
ERs are high-pressure environments designed for life-threatening emergencies. Practical nursing will involve the usual duties of checking vital signs, administering basic care, and keeping patients comfortable. However, the ER environment will often be active and crowded with nurses running around in scrubs in every direction. Keeping accurate records will be vital due to the stakes involved. There may be few scheduled breaks and many breaks can be interrupted if an emergency requires extra assistance.

Urgent care offices are not unlike regular doctor’s offices except with evening and weekend hours.  Rather than set appointments, there is an open door policy for walk-in patients who face an after-hours medical incident. While the conditions treated may require quick attention due to discomfort or the potential to become more serious, they will not be life threatening. Some nights may be very busy but it will not have the same urgency as an ER environment.

Conditions Treated
ERs treat serious conditions. Symptoms of serious conditions, including chest pain, sudden limb numbness, blurred vision, losing consciousness or severe bleeding. Many of these symptoms suggest heart attack or stroke and emergency rooms are better equipped to treat serious illness or major trauma. Head injuries, for example, should always be treated at an emergency room.

Urgent care addresses conditions that require medical attention but are not life-threatening. Strains/sprains, minor fractures, and infections are among these conditions.  Ear infections, UTI’s, and mild fractures can be very bothersome if a patient is left to wait until regular office hours resume the next morning. However, by visiting urgent care, patients can have injuries treated, secure prescriptions for antibiotics or painkillers, or simply be assured that their condition is not too serious.  

Services Provided
Part of the reason, an ER visit is more expensive is due to resources available. Hospitals are state of the art with the latest technology. Not only can ER staff provide examinations, x-rays, and run lab tests, but MRI’s, CT scans, and surgery services are also available.

Urgent care offices have more than a general practice office but are not as equipped as an ER. There is some overlap with ER services including x-rays, labs, electrocardiograms, and other diagnostic tests.  The facility has enough basic services to diagnose and treat less-threatening illnesses and injuries.

Urgent care also offers blood pressure checks, flu shots, and even sports physicals for those who may have difficulty securing those services during

From the Patient Standpoint
Patients are instructed that when in doubt, visit the emergency room.  Chest tightness can happen due to a panic attack, asthma or heart condition and visiting the ER errors on the side of caution. However, Urgent Care has the ability to rush a patient to a fully equipped ER if necessary.

When a condition is less serious, urgent care offers benefits over the ER. Triage is quicker and waits are shorter. Costs of an urgent care visit are much lower too: An ER visit averages $650.  Urgent care is normally one-third to one-half of that cost.

The ER and Urgent Care categories contribute to improving patient services and promoting efficiency in healthcare systems. In practical nursing, having these two categories offers different environments and challenges. With the job market in practical nursing expected to increase by 25% between 2012 and 2022, learning about the different medical environments will only help enhance career options.