A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Urgent care vs. emergency department: How to make the decision

Urgent care, Care My Way (virtual urgent care) and emergency care are similar services. However, the severity of your illness or condition, and preferred access to care, are key to helping you decide where to seek treatment.

Urgent care: For conditions that aren’t life-threatening

Urgent care is available for injuries and illnesses, like minor cuts that need stitches or ear infections, that are not life threatening but need care fast. Additionally, urgent care locations will see people when traveling, especially in tourist areas, because their primary care provider is not available. Find a Marshfield Clinic Health System Urgent Care location.Graphic that shows Urgent Care, Emergency Department and Care My Way in different color circles.

It can be confusing when to seek care through an emergency department or urgent care. Dr. Michael Schaars, an emergency medicine physician at Marshfield Clinic Health System, explains that if you are in doubt, call ahead so trained staff can help guide your decision.

“What we don’t want to see are people who are afraid they’re having heart attacks or stroke. Heart attack and stroke means time is of the essence,” said Dr. Schaars, “Going to urgent care first delays care. You should go immediately to the nearest Emergency Department.”

Following most urgent care visits, you should follow-up with your primary care provider.

RELATED RESOURCE: Learn more about Urgent Care at Marshfield Clinic Health System

Care My Way: Virtual urgent care for common health conditions

Virtual urgent care via telemedicine is another option for non-life-threatening conditions. With virtual visits, you can be seen by a provider for urgent care conditions without leaving home. At Marshfield Clinic Health System, Care My Way has an app for video visits or a number to call about your condition or symptoms like nasal congestion, urinary tract infections, pink eye, strep throat, head lice and many other symptoms.

RELATED RESOURCE: Find a list of injuries and illnesses commonly seen by Care My Way

Care My Way offers affordable costs for the visit upfront, depending on your health insurance coverage. Lab charges also are added if the provider determines the need for this additional assessment.

Marshfield Clinic Health System nurse practitioners’ staff Care My Way during business hours. Outside of hours when Care My Way® nurse practitioners are not present, virtual visits with Amwell providers are available through the Care My Way® app. Every time a nurse practitioner sees you through Care My Way, your primary care provider receives a report of the visit to review. Begin a Care My Way visit.

“Care My Way is a great solution to treating common health conditions from the comfort and convenience of your home,” said Pam Banerjee, Care My Way nurse practitioner. “A virtual urgent care visit is a medical visit where you contact us either by telephone or by a video visit to discuss an acute, non-life threatening health concern. We then obtain a medical history, discuss symptoms and based on the assessment will diagnose and treat the concern. Sometimes, this includes ordering tests when necessary. With just a few simple steps, you can connect with an experienced health care provider to receive guidance and treatment for everyday conditions.”

Emergency care: When it is serious or life-threatening

Emergency care is for serious medical conditions when delaying care could cause permanent harm or death. If you are experiencing chest pains, symptoms of stroke, are in labor or have a serious injury, go directly to an Emergency Department.

Emergency department visits are not for routine care. When in doubt, you can call 911 to talk through symptoms. Do not drive to the hospital if you have severe chest pain or bleeding, feel like you might faint or if your vision is impaired or have symptoms of heart attack or stroke. Taking an ambulance is safer, especially if you are suffering a heart attack. Ambulance personnel can provide care on the way to the hospital and are trained to stabilize patients before they get to an emergency room.

In the emergency department, patients are seen based on urgency of their situation in the emergency department. “When it’s busy you may wait,” Dr. Schaars said. “It’s not a problem all the time but it will still take longer than expected.”

Dr. Schaars said trends in emergency medicine show an Emergency department sees more complicated, older, sicker, more challenging patients. Their care takes more time, too. He also explains many patients seen are not true emergencies.

“We see a lot of need for urgent care and office-based care,” he said. “For people weighing the differences, seeing their regular doctor is best because they know each other. Urgent care would be quicker and less expensive than in an emergency department, if appropriate.”

After most emergency department visits, you should follow-up with your primary care provider.

RELATED RESOURCE: Marshfield Clinic Health System Emergency Department locations

Cost can be a factor

Cost can be a factor, but don’t let it determine your choice of care. Urgent care or virtual visits like Care My Way are more cost-effective, “but sometimes it is not the most appropriate choice,” Dr. Schaars said.

Emergency department providers see patients, regardless of their ability to pay. Although it’s important to be an intelligent health care consumer, you do not want to delay care in a medical emergency.

When it comes to cost, Dr. Schaars recommends seeing your primary care provider annually to be your healthiest self and prevent many urgent or emergency care visits.

“When you see your primary care provider on a regular basis for a wellness check-up, you have a good chance to catch or prevent conditions before they need immediate attention,” he said. “Your first option for care should be scheduling an appointment with your primary care provider, especially if your symptoms are manageable.”

View this handout to help differentiate some of the conditions or symptoms seen by the Emergency Department, Urgent Care or Care My Way.

Print Urgent Care, Care My Way vs. Emergency Department Infographic


emergency department vs. urgent care vs. care my way

For immediate care, visit Marshfield Clinic Health System.

Find an urgent care location Find an emergency department location

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