UK HealthCare

Should You Go to Urgent Care or the Emergency Department?

Photo credit: Halfpoint; iStock / Getty Images Plus.

The University of Kentucky Public Relations and Strategic Communications Office provides a weekly health column available for use and reprint by news media. This week's column is by Gena Cooper, M.D., medical director of pediatric emergency medicine at UK HealthCare

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 27, 2021) — It’s scary enough being sick or hurt enough to need medical attention — and the uncertainty of where to go can add to an already stressful situation. But how do you know where do you go?

Nearly 82% of hospital emergency department visits could be handled by an urgent care facility. Urgent treatment centers (UTC) are walk-in clinics that are either affiliated with a hospital network or run by private companies. You can go to an urgent treatment center if you can’t get in with your primary doctor or if you need to be seen by a provider after business hours. Unlike emergency departments, the wait time can be shorter and the cost for treatment is much less.

Go to urgent care for non-life-threatening conditions such as:

  • Fever or flu
  • Eye and ear conditions
  • Sprains and strains
  • Cuts that may require stitches
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Minor broken bones and fractures, such as toes or fingers

Urgent treatment centers can also provide imaging and laboratory tests if ordered by your primary care provider, as well as flu shots and other routine immunizations and physicals required by schools, sports or camps.

Go to a hospital emergency department for severe injury or illness, which can include:

  • Major injury and trauma
  • Chest pain
  • Severe respiratory distress
  • Head injuries
  • Stroke
  • Seizures
  • Broken bones
  • Serious burns
  • Severe pain

Both urgent care centers and emergency departments accept most major insurance plans, but the copay at urgent care might be much lower. The average cost of treatment for a urinary tract infection at a UTC is $112, versus $655 at an emergency department.

If you need a COVID-19 test, find a local testing site near you. Emergency departments cannot accommodate testing of those with no or mild symptoms.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.