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Urgent vs Primary Care

What Is the Difference Between Urgent Care and Primary Care? 

Urgent and primary care both serve essential healthcare needs, but primary care is typically used for routine checkups, whereas urgent care is when you need immediate attention.

Patients can see their primary care doctor for routine checkups, diagnosis, monitoring, and referrals to outside specialists. Contrarily, urgent care clinics exist to treat illnesses and injuries severe enough to require immediate attention but not threatening to the point that justifies an emergency room visit.

The Importance of Accessing Healthcare When You Need It 

After developing a condition or experiencing an accident, you may not immediately know where to seek appropriate treatment. Though most people prefer to see familiar primary care providers for non-emergency medical services, securing an appointment can take days or weeks. Meanwhile, urgent care facilities usually remain open all hours and holidays, seven days a week, for walk-in medical treatment. 

Regardless of how you receive care, prompt medical attention often proves the difference between a minor condition worsening into something more severe.  

Urgent Care vs. Primary Care 

Urgent and primary care each offer varying levels of care, accessibility, medical services, and patient costs.  Review this chart for details on urgent care vs. primary care:

Care Level
Accessibility
Services Provided
Costs
Urgent Care
One-time services received from unfamiliar technicians. Follow-ups occur with PCP.
Available for walk-ins on weekdays, weekends, holidays, and off-hours.
Treatment for minor illnesses, infections, allergic reactions, rashes, burns, cuts, sprains, and fractures.
Though typically less expensive overall (~$180/visit), it may not take your insurance.
Primary Care
Personalized and continuous care.
Available by appointment Monday through Friday during regular business hours.
All the same services, plus routine checkups, diagnostic care, health planning, and referrals.
More expensive (~$390/visit) but likely already covered by your insurance for a marginal copayment.

Urgent Care 

Urgent care centers treat patients for non-emergency illnesses and injuries that need same-day medical attention but do not justify the time, money, or hassle of an emergency room visit. Patients at urgent care clinics do not need an appointment, a previous relationship with the facility, or even health insurance to receive care.

Eligibility 

There are no eligibility requirements to access urgent care. However, these facilities typically ask you to present your:

  • Identification
  • Proof of insurance
  • Completed medical forms
  • Payment method

Urgent care providers cannot deny service due to a lack of insurance or legally question a patient’s immigration status. However, uninsured individuals must agree to pay all medical costs out-of-pocket. Sometimes, an urgent care center will even require your payment method upfront before beginning treatment.

Primary Care 

Most patients have a personal and long-term relationship with their PCP, giving these physicians a deeper understanding of their health, habits, and active prescriptions than any other medical professionals. If you are already a member of a primary care clinic, you should go there for checkups, health advice, medical diagnosis, minor treatments, specialist referrals, and long-term healthcare planning.  

Eligibility 

To see a primary care provider, you must:

  • Already be registered as a member with the affiliated office. If not, you must find a health center accepting new patients and schedule an introductory visit.
  • Schedule a medical appointment in advance.
  • Have valid insurance with a compliant medical network.
  • Have availability on weekdays during regular business hours.

Urgent Care vs. Primary Care: Care Level 

Urgent and primary care clinics differ in their provided care levels, as seen in this excerpt from the above chart:

Care Level
Urgent Care
One-time services received from unfamiliar technicians. Follow-ups occur with PCP.
Primary Care
Personalized and continuous care.

Primary care personnel have a broad knowledge of your medical history, preferences, medications, and general health trends. These professionals stick with you through most of your life, allowing for follow-up appointments, informed referrals, and long-term preventative care.  

Contrarily, though urgent care professionals can treat immediate issues, they have little knowledge of your medical history. If you return to the same urgent care facility, you will likely see a different doctor. Follow-up consultations usually get passed on to your PCP.

Urgent Care vs. Primary Care: Accessibility 

Similarly, each of these healthcare options allow varying accessibility levels:

Accessibility
Urgent Care
Available for walk-ins on weekdays, weekends, holidays, and off-hours.
Primary Care
Available by appointment Monday through Friday during regular business hours. Some PCPs offer weekend hours.

Unlike primary care, you can walk into an urgent care facility and receive same-day medical attention without scheduling an appointment. However, since these facilities accept all patients and can quickly become overburdened, you likely must endure longer wait times before seeing a doctor. Contrarily, patients who attend their scheduled PCP visits on time typically only have to wait 10-15 minutes.

Urgent Care vs. Primary Care: Service Provided 

Though there is little difference between urgent care and primary care services, where you receive them ultimately depends on the nature of the issue at hand:

Services Provided
Urgent Care
Treatment for minor illnesses, infections, allergic reactions, rashes, burns, cuts, sprains, and fractures.
Primary Care
Most of the same services, plus routine checkups, diagnostic care, health planning, and referrals.

Notably, PCPs primarily specialize in informed preventative and diagnostic care and long-term health planning. People with more pressing medical concerns should seek urgent care. However, if you require treatment for a minor illness or injury that can wait til your next appointment, your PCP can likely handle it.

Urgent Care vs. Primary Care: Costs 

Healthcare expenses vary widely depending on the service received, where you receive it, your insurance details, and supplementary procedures like X-rays and urine samples. This principle extends to urgent care vs. primary care:

Costs
Urgent Care
Though typically less expensive overall (~$180/visit), it may not take your insurance.
Primary Care
More expensive (~$390/visit), but likely already covered by your insurance for a marginal copayment.

Because your primary care provider has already approved your insurance, you typically only pay a $20 to $30 out-of-pocket copay per visit. Alternatively, urgent care facilities may not accept your insurance, leaving you entirely financially responsible. Regardless of where you receive care, you must still meet your policy’s annual deductible.

Which Should You Choose? 

Urgent and primary care each present unique benefits and favor specific circumstances.

Choose Urgent Care If… 

As the name suggests, urgent care accommodates patients with pressing medical issues needing same-day treatment. Examples may include people with:

  • A high fever
  • Upper respiratory problems, such as a sore throat, earache, or sinus infection
  • Minor skin infections, rashes, or burns
  • Small cuts requiring stitches
  • Minor insect or animal bites
  • Minor broken bones or fractures in the hands and feet
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Sprains, strains, and pulled muscles
  • Moderate back problems
  • Non-life-threatening allergic reactions
  • Common vaccinations
  • UTIs

Choose Primary Care If… 

Alternatively, if you need a general examination or believe your health concerns can wait through the weekend, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. Primary care candidates include people who:

  • Have an established primary care doctor.
  • Need their annual physical, a routine check-up, or a standard vaccination.
  • Have any of the issues listed above, but to a degree that does not require immediate attention.
  • Have questions about their general health or habits.
  • Need a referral to a specialist or a prescription.
  • Have chronic conditions like diabetes or hypothyroidism requiring routine maintenance and inspection.

Advantages 

Urgent Care 

Urgent care clinics offer many key benefits, including:

  • Same-day medical attention for pressing issues.
  • Cheaper services than primary care before insurance kicks in.
  • Patients do not require appointments.
  • Often open 24 hours, on weekends, and during holidays.
  • Urgent care doctors can still write referrals and prescriptions if necessary.
  • Patients do not have to have a registered file with the clinic to receive care.
  • Patients do not need health insurance to receive care, specifically benefiting undocumented immigrants and other uninsurable individuals.
  • Can treat various conditions and injuries, do lab work, administer vaccinations, and perform X-rays.
  • Can diagnose underlying health issues and help structure daily preventative care strategies.

Primary Care 

However, waiting to see your primary care provider often proves beneficial considering the following:

  • Primary care doctors have a deeper understanding of your medical history and medications, better suiting them for long-term health support.
  • PCP clinics have low wait times for scheduled appointments.
  • PCPs can prescribe medications and write specialist referrals.
  • After insurance covers most of the costs, patients typically only owe a small copayment for every scheduled PCP visit.
  • Patients can consult PCPs about non-pressing issues, such as reproductive health, sleeping problems, mental health concerns, stress management, and minor ailments or injuries.
  • Regular PCP checkups help prevent serious health conditions and uncover them before they worsen.

Drawbacks 

Urgent Care 

Before resorting to an urgent care clinic, consider the following disadvantages:

  • Not every urgent clinic will accept your insurance, leaving you to absorb the total out-of-pocket cost of care.
  • Insurance copayments at urgent care centers tend to cost more than PCP copays.
  • Wait times could last an hour or more, depending on the day.
  • Urgent care personnel know little about your medical history, habits, and current medications.
  • Urgent care facilities require more paperwork with each visit.
  • You will see a different doctor, nurse practitioner, or medical assistant with every urgent care visit.
  • Though urgent care centers have many resources, they are not equipped for emergency and life-threatening situations.

Primary Care 

Primary care also presents key shortcomings, including:

  • PCP clinics only operate Monday through Friday during regular business hours.
  • Patients must schedule appointments before receiving care. Sometimes, it can take days or weeks to secure an opening.
  • Primary care typically costs more than urgent care before insurance.
  • You must already register as a member of your primary care clinic and have up-to-date insurance to receive care. If not, you must schedule an introductory appointment with a facility accepting new patients.
  • Your insurance policy must include your PCP in their qualified medical network.
  • You must show up to your appointment on time to receive care. If you miss it, you may have to wait days or weeks before securing another one.

How to Get It: Urgent Care or Primary Care 

How you receive necessary medical services varies depending on whether you require urgent or primary care.

How to Get Urgent Care 

Securing urgent care should prove relatively straightforward by following these steps:

  1. Determine your needs. If you have a non-life-threatening injury or illness that requires immediate attention, seek urgent care. 
  2. Research clinics in your area. Find a facility that accepts your insurance and specializes in your required services. Call to ask about wait times and check-in online if they allow it.
  3. Bring necessary materials. Do not forget your insurance card, ID, relevant medical documents, and payment method.  
  4. Fill out paperwork and receive care. Since urgent care personnel typically know little about you, you must answer a thorough health questionnaire while waiting to see medical staff.

How to Get Primary Care 

To receive medical care from your primary care physician, follow the steps below:

  1. Determine your needs. If it’s time for a routine checkup, you have general health questions, or you need non-urgent medical care, move on to step two.
  2. Schedule an appointment. Call your PCP to find an opening and book your appointment. If you do not have a PCP, research clinics accepting new patients and schedule an orientation.
  3. Bring necessary documents. With your insurance already on file, you typically only need your ID to check in and cash or a credit card for your copayment.
  4. Show up on time and receive care. If you miss your appointment, you must start this process all over again.

Putting It All Together 

Where you decide to receive healthcare ultimately depends on the immediacy of the issue at hand.  Though primary care doctors have a deeper knowledge of your medical history and preferences, health concerns that need same-day attention will require urgent care. 

Most importantly, remember that if you have sustained a life-threatening injury or developed a condition that seems like it could inflict permanent bodily damage, bypass both these options and head straight to the emergency room.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Urgent care facilities will still provide medical attention to patients who do not have insurance. However, these individuals must agree to pay the total cost of each performed service out-of-pocket. Some urgent care facilities even require you to present a credit or debit card upfront before qualifying for care.

While urgent care provides many of the same services, it does not adequately replace continuous primary care. Each time you go to urgent care, you see different medical personnel who know nothing about you. Contrarily, your primary care staff deeply understands your medical history, habits, and medications, allowing them to construct viable long-term and preventative care strategies centered around your needs.

Since urgent care patients need immediate in-person medical attention, such as stitches, shots, and physical examinations, telehealth rarely serves a purpose. However, primary care doctors can still use telehealth to ask general questions, prescribe medications, write referrals, and structure long-term preventative care plans based on information derived from patient conversations.

Yes. If you have any life-threatening or potentially life-altering condition or injury, forego primary and urgent care and go straight to the emergency room. Examples include rapid blood loss, head injuries, heart attacks, seizures, inability to breathe, and more. Emergency rooms have the medical equipment and trained staff to perform complicated surgeries on short notice, whereas urgent and primary care centers do not.

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