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Urgent care vs ER vs walk-in clinic: Know where to go for the care you need

By Aetna

When you need to see a health care provider right away, you need to make a choice: do you go to the emergency room (ER), urgent care center or a walk-in clinic? The right decision can save you time and money. But how do you decide which option is best for you? Keep reading or watch this short video to learn more.

Emergency Room: At the ER, the more severe the condition, the sooner the patient will see a doctor.

Urgent Care: Urgent care typically works on a first-come, first-served basis.

Emergency Room:

If you experience something unexpected…

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe bleeding

Go to the ER, where there’s a wider range of specialists and treatment options.

If you experience non-life-threatening symptoms like…

  • Allergies
  • Headache
  • Rash
  • Fever

Urgent care it is.

Keep in mind, many minor conditions can also be treated at a retail clinic in your local pharmacy. Knowing where to go can save you time and money.

But when in doubt…

Intense and immediate symptoms or injury = ER.

Gradually increasing symptoms = Urgent care center. 

The difference between walk-in clinics, urgent care and the ER

The most important thing to consider is the type of treatment you may need. The ER is best equipped to see people with unexpected, intense and immediate symptoms or injuries, such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or severe bleeding. But many health problems can be addressed in other settings. In fact, as many as one in four ER visits could be handled at an urgent care center1. Urgent care can treat issues like sprains, fractures and cuts that require stitches. And you’re more likely to be treated faster at urgent care ― 90% of patients are out in less than an hour2.

But urgent care isn’t the only option when you’re seeking immediate treatment. For issues like a sore throat, the flu or allergies, a walk-in clinic is usually a good choice. Most neighborhood walk-in clinics are open seven days a week and are typically staffed by certified nurse practitioners and physician assistants. So they can have you feeling better in no time. 

If you still aren’t sure where to go, there are resources that can help. Call our toll-free 24/7 Nurse Line at 1-800-556-1555 (TDD/TTY: 711) to get more information about where you can seek treatment. 

In case of emergency, call 911 or your local emergency hotline or go directly to an emergency care facility. This message is for informational purposes only, is not medical advice and is not intended to be a substitute for proper medical care provided by a physician. Information is believed to be accurate as of the production date; however, it is subject to change. For more information about Aetna plans, refer to

1Weinick, Robin M et al. Health Aff (Millwood). 2010 September; 29(9): 1630-1636. Doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2009.0748. Available at: Accessed: January 23, 2019.

2Urgent Care Association. 2017 Benchmarking Report Summary, Headlines on Growth. 2017. Available at: Accessed: January 23, 2019

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