Traditionally, I knew that when one has a medical emergency that can't wait for a doctor's opinion, you go to the emergency room. Now, I see that there are Urgent Care centers around.

So when would one go there vs an actual emergency room? For example, if someone thinks that they're having a heart attack, stroke, should one go to an Urgent care? What if one has a broken bone? Potential appendicitis?

  • 2
    A suspected stroke or heart attack should result in a call to 911 (or whatever your local emergency number is). Always. No discussion, no debate.
    – Carey Gregory
    Sep 23, 2019 at 3:47
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    "there are Urgent Care centers around" - where in the world is this?
    – Arsak
    Sep 23, 2019 at 6:39
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    Ditto to Carey. @Arsak UC are common in the USA, and they have different degrees of acuity that they can manage. I'm not sure a definitive answer can be given since it will differ in different areas / UC types, but there are some things that are never cases for urgent care. Heart attacks strokes etc like Carey said are 911 cases - who will take you to the Emergency Room at a hospital able to manage the potential problems, not an Urgent Care.
    – DoctorWhom
    Sep 23, 2019 at 14:36
  • It's worth noting that urgent care centers have become common sources of 911 calls in the US. A significant number of people go to them with complaints that should have been 911 calls from their home in the first place. Fortunately, they're usually good about triaging rapidly and getting such patients into an ambulance on their way to an ER.
    – Carey Gregory
    Sep 23, 2019 at 23:49

2 Answers 2


Urgent care is for things that your normal physician could treat, but you are outside their hours or unable to get an appointment within a reasonable time for the condition.

Emergency rooms are for medical emergencies.

Examples of things that can be treated in Urgent Care (via the University of Michigan):

Cold/flu, sprained ankle, broken bones in wrist/hand/ankle/foot without severe displacement or skin punctured, sore throat, nausea, minor cuts, eye/ear infection, minor burns

Things for which you should go to the ER (or better, call 911/emergency services):

Extremely high fever, severe trauma, broken bones severely displaced or puncturing skin, difficulty breathing, heart attack/stroke, uncontrolled bleeding, poisoning, major burns

In summary, if you could die, go to the ER. If you have a non-life threatening acute medical issue, urgent care. If in question or unsure, go to the ER.

  • +1 for your first paragraph.
    – Carey Gregory
    Sep 24, 2019 at 0:55
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    @ChrisRogers Rest assured that American ERs are chock full of people with non-emergent complaints. A large percentage of those people are there because they lack healthcare insurance and ERs are the only healthcare available to them. In many large hospitals they set aside a separate waiting room for non-emergent patients and a triage nurse directs you to one or the other when you arrive. (Another benefit of calling 911 because you'll skip that step since EMS will triage you on the way.)
    – Carey Gregory
    Sep 24, 2019 at 19:03
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    And I agree with @BryanKrause's concerns. You'd be amazed how long people will put up with chest pain and other alarming symptoms. Many times when I asked when the pain began the answer has been hours or even days previously. My favorite was the nice little old lady whose chest pain started at 10pm but she waited until 9am the next morning because she "didn't want to disturb us late at night." ("Us" being EMS.)
    – Carey Gregory
    Sep 24, 2019 at 19:06
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    @CareyGregory I'm going to go back to my original wording on that, for the reasons you describe. Although, I'll say my individual experience with such a service was the opposite of yours (they recommended I call 911, though ultimately I was fine) - I suspect in a litigation-happy country like the US lawsuit concerns would dwarf the cost-savings, but given that may be a wrong assumption I don't want to send people who need immediate help down that path.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 24, 2019 at 19:15
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    @BryanKrause I'm sure experiences with them vary and some, if not most, give good advice, but I've definitely seen them give advice I thought was not in the patient's best interest. So I wouldn't know how to tell people which insurance company nurses to trust. I wish the US had a nationwide number like the UK's 111.
    – Carey Gregory
    Sep 24, 2019 at 20:40

Nice visual summary from the practice https://urgentcarelajolla.com/services/ (ER = Emergency Room):

enter image description here

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