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Emergency Department vs. Urgent Care: How do you know which one to go to?

You wake up one morning feeling out of sorts. Your muscles ache, you have a pounding headache, and you’re running a fever. You know you should see a doctor as soon as possible, but where should you go? Do you visit your local emergency department (ED)? Or head to the nearest urgent care center?

image of Dr. Sharma in front of emergency room

This is a common dilemma. With its 24/7 availability, more and more people are seeking care in an emergency department. But some emergent or urgent health concerns do not need to be treated in the emergency department. Studies show that some non-emergent conditions make up a good portion of visits to the Emergency Department, and may be able to be safely treated in a non-emergency department setting.

Urgent care centers are opening around the country to help reduce the reliance on emergency rooms for non-urgent health issues. But there’s a problem: most people don’t know how urgent care and emergency rooms are different.

Dr. Rahul Sharma, chairman of emergency medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, answers the question — should you go to an emergency department or urgent care?

“Typically emergency department care is for serious or life-threatening conditions,” he says. Although emergency departments are equipped to treat minor scratches, scraps, and infections, Dr. Sharma says they are meant to treat conditions that may be life- or limb-threatening, such as:

  • Signs of heart attack, including chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • Signs of stroke, like slurred speech or sudden onset of numbness in the arms or legs
  • Poisoning
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Severe wounds and amputations
  • Abdominal pain
  • Large lacerations

Dr. Sharma says urgent care is great for people in need of prompt medical attention for minor illnesses or injuries that can’t wait until the next day. At urgent care, which may be staffed by nurses, physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants, patients can receive treatment for a variety of illnesses, including flu, seasonal allergies, sprains, strains, UTIs, and respiratory infections. NewYork-Presbyterian offers patients the convenience of Virtual Urgent Care.

“Virtual urgent care is a convenient option — you don’t have to leave your house. It’s simple to use and immediately available,”

— Dr. Rahul Sharma, Chairman of Emergency Medicine and Emergency Physician-in-Chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine.

Through Virtual Urgent Care, patients are seen by a board-certified emergency medicine physician or pediatric emergency medicine physician who performs an examination through video chat. The sessions are typically less than 15 minutes and if medically necessary the doctor can send a prescription to your local pharmacy, offer treatment advice, or provide a referral to a specialist or primary care doctor. Dr. Sharma says in addition to the convenience of the visit, Virtual Urgent Care gives patients the opportunity to discuss medical concerns in a much more private environment than an emergency room or traditional urgent care.

“Some of the conditions patients come in for are extremely private, including UTIs (urinary tract infections) and STIs (sexually transmitted infections. There is nothing more private than having a doctor in a private office and the patient in a private space without having to visit,” he says.