If you have a bad cough or your child hurts themselves during practice, your immediate reaction may be to rush to the emergency room for treatment. However, that may not be your best option for care. In most cases, urgent care centers can treat a wide range of conditions with a shorter wait time and at a lower cost. 

Below you will learn about the key differences between urgent care and the emergency room so the next time you are faced with the question, “Should I go to urgent care or the ER?”, you will be ready to make the best decision for you or your family. 

What is urgent care? 

Urgent care centers provide medical services for illnesses or injuries that would not result in further disability or death if not treated immediately.1 Ultimately, urgent care provides easy access to health care when your primary care physician’s office is closed.2 

Compass Rose Health Plan members can locate in-network urgent care centers using our Find a Provider tool.

What is the emergency room? 

Emergency rooms (ER) are designed to treat urgent, acute and life-threatening conditions that can permanently impair or endanger your life.2 They are not the best place to go for routine care or minor ailments, which you will learn more about later in this post.

If you think you are dealing with a medical emergency, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away.  

The differences between urgent care and the emergency room 

Continue reading below to understand the major differences between urgent care and the emergency room, including types of treatment, cost and wait time. 

Types of treatment 

Urgent care centers can provide care for a wide range of conditions, including:

  • Cold / Flu
  • Sore throats
  • Infections
  • Rashes
  • Sprains and strains
  • Minor broken bones or cuts
  • Mild asthma attacks
  • Earaches

Emergency rooms are commonly used for urgent and life-threatening conditions like: 

  • Sudden change in vision
  • Sudden weakness or trouble talking
  • Large, open wounds
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe head injuries
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Spinal injuries
  • Chest pains
  • Major burns
  • Major broken bones

Know Where to Go

Download and print our Care Options Infographic so you can quickly reference your options when you need care. 


Urgent Care: In most cases, the out-of-pocket cost for visiting an urgent care center is less than a trip to the emergency room.3 For urgent care visits, Compass Rose Health Plan members pay a $50 co-pay for in-network outpatient care. 

Members can estimate costs for medical services and treatment by using the UMR Health Cost Estimator available in your myCompass Account — plus, High Option members can earn 50 reward points for using it! 

Emergency Room: Generally speaking, the average cost someone may pay for an ER visit is $2,100 compared to the average cost of $180 per urgent care visit.5  

With the Compass Rose Health Plan, Standard Option members pay a $500 co-pay and High Option members pay a $200 co-pay for emergency room visits, which is waived if admitted. However, there may be outside costs associated with your visit, such as x-ray, laboratory, pathology and machine diagnostic tests. 

It is important to understand this significant cost difference between emergency rooms and urgent care centers whether you are a Compass Rose Health Plan member or not, so you are prepared when it comes time to decide where to go for care.

Wait time

Urgent Care: 90% of urgent care patients wait 30 minutes or less to see a provider.5 This means you can receive care much faster than if you went to the emergency room for the same non-emergency conditions. 

Many urgent care centers offer online appointment scheduling to decrease your wait time even more. Simply find an in-network urgent care center near you with our Find a Provider tool and check their website for this scheduling feature. 

Emergency Room: It is important to remember the emergency room treats urgent patients first. They admit patients using the “triage system”, which gives priority to the most serious cases.6 That means a stroke patient would take priority over a patient with a sore throat, which can leave you waiting hours for care if your need is not urgent. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average ER wait time to see a provider has increased 25% in just six years — and it continues to increase as more people go to the emergency department for non-urgent needs.7 

The CDC also reported the average emergency department wait time is around 30 minutes and treatment time is around 90 minutes, adding up to roughly two hours in the ER.8 However, keep in mind these are only averages and your wait time can increase significantly depending on your hospital location and severity of health care needs. 

Similarities between the emergency room and urgent care

While there are significant differences between urgent care and emergency rooms, they do share some similarities. Both are equipped to handle a wide range of non-emergency illnesses and injuries and chronic situations. Additionally, many insurance companies cover both urgent care and emergency room visits, including the Compass Rose Health Plan.  

Bonus: Consider convenience clinics 

Another health care option available is a retail or convenient care clinic such as Walgreens or MinuteClinic inside CVS. These clinics can treat many simple conditions such as allergies, minor sprains and sore throats. At in-network clinics, Standard Option members pay a $35 co-pay and High Option members pay a $15 co-pay. Plus, the wait time is typically 15 minutes or less — shorter than both emergency rooms and urgent care centers. 


The biggest difference between urgent care and the emergency room is the severity of the conditions they treat. Chances are, if you have a non-urgent medical condition, you will receive care faster in urgent care centers versus the ER. However, be sure to always go straight to the emergency room or call 911 if you are experiencing a medical emergency. 

The best thing you can do is plan ahead and know where the closest in-network facilities are located by using our Find a Provider tool. To learn more information about all of your options, visit our Care Options Guide.

1 What is Urgent Care Medicine? AAUCM: https://aaucm.org/what-is-urgent-care-medicine/

2 What is Urgent Care and When Should You Use It? Mount Sinai: https://www.mountsinai.org/locations/urgent-care/what-is-urgent-care

3 Understanding Your Options for Care. Compass Rose Benefits Group: https://compassrosebenefits.com/CRBG/Care_Options.aspx

4 Compare how urgent care centers can deliver treatment for less money. UnitedHealthcare: https://www.uhc.com/individual-and-family/member-resources/urgent-care

5 Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room: What’s the Difference? GoHealth Urgent Care: https://www.gohealthuc.com/UCvsER

6 Urgent Care vs. the Emergency Room: What’s the Difference? (September 2017) Michigan Health:  https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/health-management/urgent-care-vs-emergency-room-whats-difference

7 Wait Time for Treatment in Hospital Emergency Departments. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db102.htm#:~:text=Mean%20wait%20times%20for%20patients,and%20nonurgent%20(53.5%20minutes).

8 Enduring Really Long Waits at the Emergency Room (May 2015) U.S. News & World Report: https://health.usnews.com/health-news/patient-advice/articles/2015/05/08/enduring-really-long-waits-at-the-emergency-room#:~:text=In%20May%202014%2C%20the%20Centers,two%20hours%20in%20the%20ER.

Last Updated: December 28, 2023.