Urgent Care vs. Walk-In Clinic: What’s the Difference?

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Written by: Jessica Guht Medically reviewed by: Amy Dougherty, FNP-BC, AGAC
Jessica Guht
Categorized as Telemedicine
Created on:
Jessica Guht
Categorized as Telemedicine

Many healthcare professionals and members of the public use the terms “urgent care” and “walk-in clinic” interchangeably. However, there is a subtle difference between them. Urgent care clinics are for patients with non-life-threatening conditions that can’t wait more than 24 hours for treatment, whereas walk-in clinics are for general health concerns. 

This article describes what walk-in and urgent care clinics are, their differences, and why you should consider choosing virtual urgent care instead. 

Table of Contents

Are Walk-In Clinics and Urgent Care Clinics the Same Thing?

Walk-in clinics and urgent care clinics are similar but not identical. Urgent care clinics offer more capabilities, enabling them to deal with a broader range of critical health problems. They may also offer extended opening hours.

What Is a Walk-In Clinic?

A walk-in clinic is a substitute for traditional physician-mediated medical care. Instead of booking an appointment with a registered doctor, patients can arrive and wait for a consultation at any time. 

Most walk-in clinics operate a queue-based system. Patients arrive and report to the front desk, where a receptionist adds them to the list of patients waiting to see a doctor. Staff then call patients when doctors become available. Some clinics may operate a priority service for urgent cases. 

When patients attend a walk-in clinic, they do not expect any follow-up care or a long-term relationship with the attending physician. Most people receive a prescription for the medication they need and then treat themselves as an outpatient. They may then follow up with their primary physician at a later date. 

Common treatments at these clinics include: 

  • Bandages and dressings for minor cuts, lacerations, and burns
  • Antibiotics for strep throat, ear infections, and sinusitis
  • Skin infections
  • Uncomplicated urinary tract infections
  • Immunizations, including flu shots
  • Physical examinations
  • Referrals to specialists at local hospitals
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea and vomiting

Walk-in clinics offer several benefits compared to traditional doctors’ offices. For instance, patients can get a quicker service because they don’t need to wait for a gap in their physician’s timetable. 

They can also access rapid diagnosis. Most walk-in clinics have on-site x-rays, ultrasound equipment, and blood test laboratories. 

Walk-in clinics are also open longer than traditional doctor’s offices. Patients can get treatment as late as 11 pm, including on weekends. 

Lastly, healthcare systems often place walk-in clinics in highly accessible locations close to pharmacies and public transport. Therefore, some patients may find them easier to access. 

What Is an Urgent Care Clinic?

An urgent care clinic (sometimes called an “urgent care center”) is a walk-in clinic focusing on urgent care. These clinics provide extra capacity for cases that don’t need the emergency room but still require urgent medical assistance.

For instance, patients should attend an urgent care clinic if they have: 

  • Non-life-threatening injuries requiring immediate care
  • The flu or severe colds
  • Minor burns
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Ear infections 
  • Minor fractures
  • Minor eye injuries
  • Sinus infections
  • Sprains and muscle pain

However, urgent care is not a substitute for the ER. You should go to the emergency room if you are choking, having trouble breathing, suffering from a head, neck, or spine injury, have chest pain or pressure, or are severely burned. Going to urgent care could waste valuable time. 

Urgent care clinics offer multiple benefits to patients. They tend to provide quicker service than traditional doctor’s offices, and you don’t need to make an appointment in advance. They may also have specialist diagnostic equipment on-site, eliminating the need to travel around. 

What’s the Difference Between a Walk-in Clinic and an Urgent Care Clinic?

Urgent care clinics are a type of walk-in clinic. Patients arrive without an appointment and wait in line to see a doctor in both cases. 

However, urgent care clinics deal with more severe cases, such as:

  • Patients that require urgent assistance to stop their condition from getting worse
  • Patients with non-life-threatening but severe conditions

By contrast, walk-in clinics deal with all health non-emergency complaints, including non-urgent conditions or those that won’t get worse rapidly.

Triage is rare at regular walk-in clinics. However, urgent care professionals may prioritize patients in the most critical condition. Upon arrival, they may also begin a patient assessment to determine if they need to transfer them to the emergency room. 

When to Go to an Urgent Care Center, and When Is a Walk-in Clinic?

You should go to an urgent care clinic if you have an illness or injury that doesn’t appear to be life-threatening but can’t wait another 24 hours. For instance, if you have severe flu or a minor cut, you should get medical help from an urgent care clinic. 

If you have a non-urgent medical complaint, you should go to a walk-in clinic. Practitioners here can provide comprehensive diagnostic services to determine the type of treatment you require. They can also offer extended consultations. 

Remember, some walk-in clinics also provide urgent care. Always check the providers in your local area to see what services they offer. 

Choose Virtual Urgent Care Instead!

Even with their benefits, urgent care clinics still have a significant disadvantage: you must travel to get treatment. Fortunately, virtual urgent care services eliminate this issue. 

Virtual urgent care is available to most adult patients who require same-day care for urgent medical issues (problems that can’t wait until the next day). Urgent virtual care can assist with allergies, birth control, skin conditions, colds and flu, cold sores, coughs, cysts, pink eye, headaches, ear pain, warts, yeast infections, urinary tract infections, diarrhea, vomiting, and sinus pain. 

Once you indicate your interest in speaking with a doctor, your consultation will take place as soon as possible, usually within a couple of hours. Physicians will ask you about your symptoms and prescribe any medications you need. They will tell you if you need to attend a clinic in person for an examination. 

Most virtual care clinics operate an online waiting room. Here, you can wait for a physician or clinician to appear and discuss your case. Alternatively, you can arrange a call-back at a time that suits you. 

Virtual urgent care clinics conduct telehealth consultations over secure networks. Legally, they must uphold patient privacy and confidentiality and use sophisticated data encryption. 

Like in-person appointments, virtual urgent care providers accept health insurance. They will bill your insurer first, and then you pay any copay or deductible you owe. 

Virtual urgent care clinics can provide prescription medications as part of your treatment. However, they only prescribe drugs for conditions that require urgent care. If you need to discuss long-term medications, you should do so with your primary physician. 

Face-to-face consultations may be better for routine medical concerns or chronic diseases. However, virtual urgent care is arguably superior when you need treatment quickly. You save time because there is less waiting and driving, and you can get the care you need when you need it, regardless of the time or day. 

How Can DrHouse Help You?

DrHouse is your one-stop destination for all your urgent care needs. We provide private, convenient, and secure virtual urgent care consultations to treat a wide range of illnesses and injuries.

Our online doctors are highly experienced and certified to cater to urgent medical requests. They are available 24/7 and our average wait time is less than 15 minutes.

If you need to see the doctor NOW, simply sign up, download our telehealth app and start an online visit!

FAQ

Can I Receive Treatment for Minor Injuries at Both an Urgent Care Center and a Walk-in Clinic?

Both urgent care and walk-in clinics provide treatment for minor injuries. However, urgent care clinics may have better equipment and more experienced personnel on-site for dealing with cuts, burns, and lacerations. 

How Does the Cost of Care at an Urgent Care Center Compare to That of a Walk-in Clinic?

Urgent care clinics cost around the same as walk-in clinics. Even though they offer rapid care like emergency rooms, patients pay a fraction of the price. 

The average emergency room visit costs approximately $530, with a further $400 to $1,200 for an ambulance. By contrast, urgent care visits cost between $100 and $600 (excluding additional diagnostic services, such as x-rays), making them significantly cheaper. Walk-in clinics charge similar prices because the services they offer overlap.

Therefore, many patients choose to go to the urgent care clinic instead of the ER to save money, particularly if they have a membership. However, you should only do this if your condition is not life-threatening. Urgent care clinics are not the best place for heart attack, stroke, or patients with breathing difficulties. 

Are Urgent Care Centers Open 24 Hours a Day Like Some Walk-in Clinics?

Most urgent care clinics open around 7 am and close at 11 pm. However, some stay open all night, like walk-in clinics. 

Moreover, many urgent care operators provide services seven-day-a-week, every day of the year. Doctors see it as their responsibility to care for patients on weekends and public holidays. 

Is the Quality of Care at an Urgent Care Center Comparable to That of a Walk-in Clinic?

The quality of care at an urgent care center is usually similar or identical to a regular walk-in clinic. However, some patients may prefer urgent care because of its focus on dealing with health problems rapidly. 

Key Takeaways

In summary: 

  • Urgent care is for patients with non-life-threatening illnesses or injuries who can’t wait more than 24 hours
  • Urgent care clinics are a type of walk-in clinics where patients don’t need to make an appointment or receive follow-up care
  • Virtual urgent care clinics eliminate the need for patients to travel to get healthcare

Sources:

Content on the DrHouse website is written by our medical content team and reviewed by qualified MDs, PhDs, NPs, and PharmDs. We follow strict content creation guidelines to ensure accurate medical information. However, this content is for informational purposes only and not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. For more information click here.

Always consult with your physician or other qualified health providers about medical concerns. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it based on what you read on this website.

If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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