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Should I go to urgent care or the ER?

Posted on Aug. 7, 2017 ( comments)
24 Hours - Emergency Department

Lisa Hunt, 52, was helping to clean out her dad's house earlier this year when she reached for a rag on the windowsill, not knowing that a fish hook was tucked inside. As Hunt grabbed the rag, the barb of the hook lodged deeply inside her finger.

Unable to remove the hook herself, and wanting to get back to work, Hunt knew that she needed prompt medical care — but she wasn’t sure whether she should go to urgent care or to the emergency room.

When you're in pain and need to see a doctor quickly, you don't want to have to think about where to go. With so many urgent care clinics popping up in the Puget Sound, is it better to head to one of those, or to the emergency department, where you might have a longer wait time?

And when is virtual care the best option?

Know the difference

Both emergency rooms and urgent care clinics are designed to provide medical care quickly, but there are distinct differences between the two. Understanding these differences now can save time later if something unexpected does happen.

A basic rule of thumb is if a situation doesn't threaten life or limb, it's best to go to urgent care. Many people use the emergency department as a place to receive after-hours care for minor illnesses or injuries, without realizing that they have another option.


Find an urgent care near me

Find an emergency room near me

Try MultiCare Virtual Care

Where to seek care


At MultiCare Urgent Care clinics, you can get X-rays, stitches and care for a wide range of minor injuries and illnesses that aren't life threatening, yet require medical attention on the same day, after work, or on weekends. These include:

  • Sprains
  • Minor fractures
  • Burns
  • Fevers
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Cold and flu symptoms
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Earaches
  • Rashes
  • Headaches and migraines

Urgent care clinics also offer a broad range of preventive services such as screenings, medical tests, immunizations, travel medicine and physical exams. 

With MultiCare Virtual Care, health care providers can evaluate, diagnose and treat non-emergency problems using telecommunications technology such as a phone, tablet, computer or mobile app. Virtual care is useful for many common health issues, but it offers a more limited scope than urgent care.

Hospital emergency departments provide medical care at any time of the day or night. Unlike urgent care clinics, they are equipped and staffed for even the most complex or critical needs, from heart attack and stroke to traumatic injuries following a car accident.

If you're having trouble breathing, if you think you're having a cardiac issue or a stroke, or if you're at all concerned about staying alive, going to the emergency department or calling 911 is always the right thing to do.

Your MultiCare options

MultiCare is the Puget Sound’s largest urgent care provider, with MultiCare Urgent Care, Indigo Urgent Care, Immediate Clinic and MultiCare Express Clinic. With more than 35 clinics located throughout the South Sound, chances are there's one near you.

Indigo Urgent Care is a line of urgent care clinics that bring together convenience and high-touch services, with amenities such as a health care concierge, complimentary espresso, water, Wi-Fi service and charging stations.

Check your knowledge

This chart shows some common health conditions and emergencies. Can you identify the best place to seek treatment for each one?

Urgent care

Virtual care

Emergency department

Cold or flu symptoms

X

X

Mild to moderate headache or migraine

X

Sudden, severe headache

X

Earache

X

X

Moderate fever

X

Newborn with a fever

X

Urinary tract infection

X

X

Asthma

X

X

Difficulty breathing

X

Persistent chest pain

X

Severe pain

X

Sudden difficulty speaking

X

Minor fracture

X

Severe broken bone

X

Head or eye injuries

X

Foreign object removal

X


Assessing in the moment

If you find yourself in need of urgent care, first try to calm yourself down and take a deep breath before you assess your situation. Remember, if your problem is life- or limb-threatening, you should go to the emergency department. If not, you can probably be seen at an urgent care clinic.

It's a good idea to know where your nearest urgent care clinics and emergency rooms are located, and create a list to keep handy. If you're in doubt about where to go, you can always call your nearest urgent care for advice. Remember that urgent care hours vary depending on the clinic, whereas the emergency room is open 24/7.

Err on the side of caution: If you're still not sure, go to the emergency department or call 911.

If you had been in Hunt's shoes when she injured her finger with the fish hook, where would you have gone?

Fish hook X-ray

Hunt first tried Indigo Urgent Care, where doctors were unable to remove the fish hook without risking further injury to tendons, nerves, and bones in her finger. So she moved on to the MultiCare Tacoma General Emergency Department, where doctors numbed her finger, took an X-ray and guided the fish hook out successfully.


Find an urgent care near me

Find an emergency room near me

Try MultiCare Virtual Care

Where to seek care


Posted in: General Vitals

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