Urgent Care Vs. The Emergency Room: Which Has The Longer Wait Time?

It's a worst-case scenario: feeling so sick or being so hurt that you need medical attention right away. And you may immediately think of going to an emergency room to get help quickly. It's in the name, after all — it's where to go in an emergency. And there definitely are times to go to the emergency room, especially if someone is experiencing difficulty breathing, chest pain, vomiting blood, uncontrolled bleeding, and signs of a stroke, such as slurred speech and disorientation (from Beaumont Health). Basically, anything that is life-threatening means a to the emergency room.

If you're facing a medical issue that doesn't absolutely require you to go to the emergency room, but needs to be addressed before you can get an appointment with a primary care physician, you should head to urgent care, advises Mount Sinai,

Urgent care clinics/centers first opened in the 1970s, and they fill the gap between emergency services and primary care services (via The American Association of Physician Specialists). The medical professionals at urgent care can diagnose conditions, get x-rays, stitch up wounds, and prescribe medication — things you might need right away but that aren't life threatening (from Healthline). Urgent care facilities may also be easier to get to, with over 9,000 centers in the U.S. (from Blue Shield California).

You might think if you need something dealt with right away, an emergency would be more quickly addressed than something urgent, so go to the emergency room. But that might result in a long wait.

Urgent care centers have shorter wait times overall

ERs have a five-tier triage system in place. You'll be checked upon arrival, but if there are people sicker than you, you will wait longer to see a doctor (from Healthgrades). The average time to see a doctor varies by hospital and state, and the median length of time in the emergency room before being admitted can range from 100 minutes to 350 minutes (from Kaiser Health News).

In comparison, in 2018, it took less than 20 minutes for 70% of patients to see a provider at an urgent care center, with 85% of patients having their care completed at an urgent care center in under an hour (from Urgent Care Association). That's in and out at an urgent care center in less time than you might spend waiting at an emergency room. And it's far quicker than waiting to have your primary care provider address the issue; for that, you could be waiting six days to a month (via Medical Group Management Association).

But remember, timing shouldn't be the only thing that determines where to go when facing a medical concern. If it's a true emergency, go to the emergency room, and if it really is life-threatening, you'll be seen quickly.