We are CityHealth, an urgent care provider with clinic locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. We provide quality care for everyone in our clinics, and often hear questions about what urgent care is for. When should you go to urgent care vs an emergency room? What does urgent care treat? What about primary care? Let’s dive in and answer all your burning urgent care questions!
What is the difference between primary care, urgent care, and the emergency room?
PRIMARY CARE encompasses personalized healthcare that you receive throughout your life. Ideally, you establish a relationship with a primary care physician before you have any medical issues. They see you for all your health needs, both physical and mental. After a medical incident that takes you to an ER or urgent care, you can go to your primary care for follow-up appointments. They know your medical history, prescribe and refill medications, perform annual exams, see you regularly for ongoing medical concerns, and refer you to specialists when needed. For children, their primary care provider is their pediatrician or family physician.
URGENT CARE is where you receive healthcare for suddenly occurring medical issues that are not life-threatening. Most primary care providers cannot see their patients on the same day, which is why urgent care is so important. It’s also convenient, as most urgent care clinics offer walk-in visits and same-day appointments. Urgent care is also referred to as immediate care.
THE EMERGENCY ROOM is for life-threatening medical concerns. If you need to be rushed to the hospital, the emergency department of a hospital is where you will go. Emergency rooms do not require an appointment and are open 24/7. Patients who arrive at an emergency room are triaged – meaning that they are admitted when their condition is more life-threatening than that of other patients in the waiting room. For example, a patient who is unable to breathe will be seen before someone with a fracture, even if they arrive last.
Should you go to the emergency room or urgent care?
Here’s a simple way to determine if you should go to urgent care or the emergency room: Would you go to your primary care doctor if they could see you that day? If so, then you likely should go to urgent care.
If you have an established primary care physician, call them first to see if you can be seen that day. If they are unavailable, find your closest urgent care clinic for walk-in or to make an appointment.
If you feel like you need to be seen immediately and your life potentially is in danger, go to the emergency room. This should go without saying, but call 911 if you need immediate help getting to the closest hospital.
Urgent Care for Testing and Physicals
Did you know that one of the most common reasons for urgent care appointments are routine testing and physicals? Doctor’s offices are often booked days or weeks in advance, so it is very convenient to complete necessary testing right away.
These are common reasons that people visit our urgent care clinics in Northern California:
- Tuberculosis (TB) testing
- COVID-19 testing
- DOT physical
- STD testing
COVID-19 Testing at Urgent Care Centers
Currently, COVID testing is commonly performed at urgent care centers due to the immediate need of these tests. If you were exposed to COVID or have symptoms, don’t wait until your primary care office has an appointment available. Go straight to urgent care to get tested.
Common Illnesses Treated at Urgent Care
Urgent care clinics, or walk-in clinics, have trained staff prepared for a variety of medical concerns, just like any doctor’s office. Remember that they are not equipped for life-threatening emergencies.
In our Northern California clinics, these are the most common medical reasons that people go to urgent care or walk-in clinics:
- Urinary tract infection (UTI)
- Cough or sore throat
- Abdominal or stomach pain
- Motor vehicle accident
- Cold or flu symptoms
- Back pain
- Upper respiratory infection (URI)
- Sinus infection
- Ear infection
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Wound or abscess
- Shortness of breath
Urgent Care for Kids
If your child is not experiencing a life-threatening emergency, but they do need to be seen right away, first call your pediatrician. If they are unable to see you that same day, then urgent care is the way to go. You don’t want to wait in the waiting room of the emergency department for hours with your child, which is likely to happen when the issue isn’t life threatening.
Find a pediatric urgent care near you, as their staff is uniquely equipped to ease the fears of children while providing specialized quality care. If you do not have a pediatric clinic, contact your closest urgent care to see if they can see your child before making an appointment or walking in.
Common reasons for pediatric urgent care visits:
- Ear infections
- Pink eye
- Sore throat
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Upper respiratory infection
Just like adults, your child may need testing, vaccination, or a physical for school or sports. If their pediatrician can’t see them in time, your urgent care may be able to complete necessary testing, physicals, or vaccinations. Make sure to retain all records for your pediatrician for synchronized care.
Walk-In Urgent Care
“Walk-in clinics, “urgent care,” and “immediate care” are often used interchangeably. They all mean the same thing – these clinics provide care immediately or on the same day.
Most urgent care centers have walk-ins available. However, appointments are typically easier on the staff and on yourself, so make an appointment if you can. You’ll avoid a lengthy stay in the waiting room this way.
Urgent Care Cost Without Insurance
One benefit to urgent care vs the emergency room is cost. Urgent care visits are less expensive than emergency room visits. But don’t use that reason to go to urgent care for an emergency! You will not receive adequate care for a true emergency while at a walk-in clinic.
If you don’t have insurance, ask your urgent care center directly about their costs. They should be able to clearly tell you what your out-of-pocket expenses will be. Many clinics even list these costs on their website.
What Types of Doctors Work at Urgent Care?
In California (as well as several other states), every urgent care clinic must be owned by a physician. During your visit, a physician (MD or DO) is on staff, but you may not see them. This varies by clinic and will depend on your visit.
It’s very common to see nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician’s assistants (PAs) at urgent care centers. This is due to the non-emergent nature of urgent care. NPs and PAs are excellent at providing quality care for run-of-the-mill illnesses and wound care. A physician is always available for more complicated issues and to authorize certain prescriptions and treatment.
Every urgent care center has different staff available to treat their patients. You should receive the same quality care no matter what their credentials are. At CityHealth, we pride ourselves on providing the highest quality care with our team of highly trained, credentialed medical team.
Virtual Urgent Care
All you need is a simple health issue and a smartphone or computer to use virtual urgent care, also known as telemedicine. It’s so much easier than going into a clinic. If you are certain that your issue doesn’t need to be seen in person and can be treated virtually, then consider scheduling a virtual appointment.
These are some medical concerns that can be addressed virtually:
- Seasonal allergies
- UTI or bladder infection
- Abdominal or stomach pain
- Sore throat
- Cold, flu, or cough
- Walk-Ins, Appointments, and Wait Time
If you are able to make an appointment at your local urgent care, then schedule one ASAP. This will ensure a short wait time and a smoother visit.
If there are no appointments available and you need to walk into the clinic, prepare yourself for a wait. It’s difficult to predict how long wait times can be, as this widely varies depending on how busy the clinic is that day. Fortunately, wait times at urgent care are notoriously better than wait times in the emergency room.
What Services and Testing do Urgent Care Centers Provide?
We discussed what medical issues and illnesses urgent care centers treat, but then what? How do they treat them? What services do they provide? This does depend on the urgent care clinic. If there is a service that you need and they can’t provide it, they should refer you to a different location to complete that service or test.
All urgent care centers are able to prescribe medication, perform thorough exams, administer some vaccinations, and complete basic in-house lab tests. Many of them have x-ray or radiology available, or can refer you for one if they don’t have a machine in the clinic.
It should give you peace of mind knowing that you don’t have to go to the emergency room when your doctor can’t see you right away. Avoid the wait and high costs and go to urgent care or a walk-in clinic for quality same-day care.