When should you go to urgent care vs. emergency room?

Medical professionals say it depends on the medical problem

Every year, millions of people need some kind of medical attention, but how do you know when to go to urgent care or go directly to the emergency room?

At Mayo Clinic Health System and Gundersen Health System, the professionals are there to help.

“What will happen when you come in, you will see an registered nurse who will triage your symptoms, and he or she will help you go down the right track, whether it’s urgent care or emergency room,” said Kim Dockham, nursing administrator at Mayo Clinic Health System.

“That way the patient doesn’t have to make the decision. They just know they need to be seen and the triage nurse sees them and will get them in the right area,” said Dr. Eric Voter, director of emergency services at Gundersen Health System.

If the medical problem is non-life-threatening, the triage nurse will likely send the patient to urgent care, but the hours vary by location.

“Urgent care is a place for non-life-threatening injuries and probably for conditions that can’t wait until the next day when you can see your primary doctor,” said Dockham.

“Urgent care type complaints would be a person with upper respiratory infection, sinus infection, mild flu symptoms, minor injuries like a sprained ankle, wrist or knee and sore throat,” said Voter.

If the medical condition is more severe, the patient will head to the emergency room.

“The ER is more for life-threatening and severe illness or injury. When you come to ER you are going to get more diagnostic tests available and access to specialists, and of course when you are talking about more tests and specialists the cost to providing emergency care is higher than what it would be in urgent care,” said Dockham.

“People with acute stroke symptoms, heart problems, respiratory problems, shortness of breath, abdominal pain and any type of major injury as well,” said Voter.

Voter said it’s a good system to have because the patient doesn’t always know how serious their condition can be.

“You may think you have a minor complaint and the little bit of belly pain is insignificant and by the time you are done with their workup, this person has something that requires surgery,” said Voter.

So whether a patient walks in with a sprained wrist or chest pain, know that there is someone there to help you get the best care possible.

“The staff that is in the area will make the best decision for the care that they need at the time they present and what they are presenting with, and that leaves out the guesswork for the patient of where do I go and when. That’s why we are here to help you,” said Dockham.

Keep in mind, emergency rooms are open around the clock, but urgent care has specific hours depending on medical facility and location. So even if something is non-life-threatening, you may have to go to the ER because urgent care is closed.

If the condition is life-threatening, patients should always call 911. But if it isn’t, a good place to start may be by calling the hospital. Both Gundersen and Mayo have a 24/7 nurse hot line you can call that can help you decide what’s best for your current medical need. Gundersen’s telephone nurse adviser number is 608-775-4454 or 800-858-1050. Mayo’s number is 608-785-0940 and ask for the nurse line.