For many people, the term "emergency room," or ER, is synonymous with immediate medical attention. It's typically the first destination if someone collapses on the job or a child injures himself after school. In recent years, however, many of the same medical services have been offered by freestanding or private facilities known as urgent care centers. While the two are not the same and serious medical emergencies should always be dealt with in an ER, less extreme injuries that need to be reviewed by a medical professional can typically be handled in urgent care.
In the case of these two hypothetical victims, an individual who collapsed at work would most likely be better served in an emergency room. The injured child, on the other hand, would probably be a better candidate for an urgent care center. The worker may have a serious cardiac condition that would require immediate attention from a trained cardiologist, and this is most quickly provided in a setting connected to a hospital. The urgent care center, on the other hand, usually has the means to treat broken bones or other non-life threatening conditions, but not to treat heart attacks in-house.
Another difference between these medical facilities is availability. An ER connected to a government-funded hospital is usually required to provide 24-hour emergency care. An urgent care center may be privately funded, which means it has the right to determine its own hours of operation.
An urgent care center's main mission is to provide immediate medical care during times when a patient's primary physician is not available. It would not be unusual for an urgent care center to close at 11 p.m. — or even earlier — and reopen at 7 a.m. the next morning. Anyone seeking immediate treatment outside of those hours would most likely be urged to visit a traditional emergency room.
As people who've gone to the ER there for non-emergent injuries usually find out, however, there is often a very long wait to see a medical professional as emergency cases are always seen first. Because an urgent care center does not routinely handle multiple traumas, there is usually less of a wait between initial triage and examination by a physician.
One important difference between these healthcare options is the expense. Anyone who has visited an emergency room for a relatively minor situation has probably been surprised by the high cost. Many are required by law to provide treatment to anyone who requests it, regardless of the patient's ability to pay, so the hospital that sponsors the ER often attempts to recoup some of its losses by billing insured patients at higher rates. This can mean big bills for even common items, like aspirin or bandages, that are provided there. Physicians can charge significant fees for their services as well.
An urgent care center, on the other hand, can exercise the right to refuse uninsured patients or those with a proven inability to pay. This practice keeps overhead expenses lower, so an insured patient is not charged exorbitant fees for common medical items. Doctors and nurses who provide services may agree to put a ceiling on their fees as employees of a private medical company. Patients often receive much smaller bills after visiting a local urgent care center.