Choosing between Urgent Care, Primary Care, and the Emergency Room: Your choice could save—or cost—you time and money.

Imagine that you’ve slipped and cut your arm. The cut is deep enough that you’re probably going to need some stitches. And there’s a chance something might be broken too.

Now imagine spending several hours in the emergency room and then getting a hefty medical bill at the end of it. In the past several years, trips to the emergency department (ED) have skyrocketed, with national wait times between 3-4.5 hours for each visit. Some of this is due to uninsured individuals going to the ED for minor ailments, as well as a general lack of knowledge about where to go to receive the right care. Even with insurance, the ED can carry a hefty out-of-pocket cost.

It’s common to see blood, then panic, and think a trip to the hospital is necessary. The good news is that typically your local urgent care can handle stitches, tetanus shots, and x-rays with a shorter wait time and lower cost than the ED.

Download our Where to Go for Care Cheat Sheet to have on hand for when medical needs arise. The bottom line is that if it’s a true emergency situation, you should always go to the ED. If it is urgent, but not an emergency, the urgent care might be the better choice.

Get Urgent Care Smart

Where things get a little less clear is deciding between your primary care doctor and urgent care. If you feel like you can wait a day or two for an appointment with your regular doctor, that might be the best option for you. The advantage to seeing your primary care team is that they can keep track of your health and see you for a variety of situations. For example, if you have multiple health issues to discuss, have a chronic condition, or need a refill on medication, you can make a longer appointment with your primary doctor. Urgent care visits are short by design, with just enough time to treat one urgent medical concern to get you in and out quickly.

If you feel like you can’t wait a day or two for an appointment with your regular doctor, urgent care is the way to go. A major benefit of urgent care is that you don’t need an appointment and can come in when it’s most convenient for you. Some urgent care clinics allow you to check-in online to reduce the amount of time you have to sit in the waiting room. Many urgent care clinics, like Gateway Family and Urgent Care, publish wait times on their website and offer extended hours on weekdays, as well as weekends.

If you’re planning an urgent care visit, answer the questions in our Decision Guide to make sure it’s your best option. Remember, it’s not just about getting treatment for your issue. If it’s not an emergency, understanding your options and choosing wisely could save you hundreds of dollars and hours of your time.