Urgent Care vs Primary Care: What’s the Difference?

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
October 18, 2022

Primary care and urgent care can treat a similar range of health conditions. However, they serve different purposes—while primary care providers know you and your medical history and provide care for your chronic medical issues, urgent care clinics are open for immediate attention at an extended range of hours..

In this article, I’ll discuss what primary care and urgent care do, the differences between the two, and the pros and cons of each. I’ll also talk about the cost differences between going to your primary care doctor and an urgent care clinic. 

What Is Urgent Care?

Urgent care clinics are walk-in clinics that treat minor injuries and illnesses. The main benefit of these clinics is that they’re open longer hours than a typical doctor’s office. They can also have shorter wait times and be more accessible, and they often have some imaging and laboratory capabilities on site.

These clinics are for urgent but not emergency health conditions. You can go to urgent care for many of the same minor, non-life-threatening conditions that you might see your primary care provider about, such as a cough or UTI. They’re also a good alternative to the emergency room, which can have long wait times and should be reserved for more serious health emergencies. 

Urgent care clinics maybe be staffed with primary care and emergency medicine physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners. They can treat minor wounds, place stitches, perform basic tests, and prescribe medications. You can visit an urgent care clinic if you’re experiencing:

  • Cold or flu symptoms
  • Ear infection
  • Eye infection
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Pain with urination
  • STD concerns
  • Fever
  • Minor cut
  • Minor strain or sprain
  • Minor sports injury
  • Animal or insect bite

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What Is Primary Care?

Primary care refers to your primary care provider (PCP), who you see for regular check-ups and sick visits or other non-urgent health concerns. Because of this, they are familiar with your medical history and can more easily identify and diagnose possible health conditions.

When to Go to Urgent Care vs Primary Care?

Urgent care and primary care can both treat minor, non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries. Their primary differences lie in their accessibility. Urgent care clinics are  open more hours and on more days than primary care, and you can walk in without an appointment. Primary care has more limited hours, and you need an appointment.

Deciding whether to go to urgent or primary care usually depends on your health concern and how soon you need medical attention. For example, if you have a wound or a cut that needs stitches, urgent care may be a better choice. You can be seen quickly, and a doctor, PA, or nurse practitioner can provide stitches and pain relief. However, if you have a less urgent yet chronic health concern like an exacerbation of chronic stomach pain, or help managing your diabetes, it may be a good idea to see your primary care doctor. 

Your choice may also depend on the day of the week or time of day. Most primary care doctor’s offices are open 9-5, Monday-Friday, so if you need to see a doctor over the weekend, urgent care may be your only choice.

Differences in Cost

While overall urgent care tends to be less expensive than primary care, the cost of care can vary significantly. One of the primary contributing factors is insurance, and whether the urgent care you go to takes insurance or you have to pay out of pocket.

You probably go to a PCP who is covered by your insurance, and then you may only need to pay a small co-pay for the visit. f you need to go to urgent care, try to choose a clinc and provider who are in network. If you’re not sure which clinics are covered by your policy, call your insurance provider or check on their website. If you don’t have insurance and need to pay out of pocket for the visit, check on the urgent care’s website to find out the expected cost. 

Urgent Care vs Primary Care

The following chart illustrates the differences between primary and urgent care.

Urgent CarePrimary Care
Open extended hoursOpen standard business hours
Providers don’t know youProviders know you well
Minor injuries or illnesses requiring immediate attentionMinor injuries or illnesses not requiring immediate attention
Possibly less expensivePossibly more expensive
Walk-inMay be by appointment only

Which Is Better?

Neither urgent care nor primary care is better—each provides different services and has different benefits. While primary care providers might know you well, they are open for limited hours. Urgent care clinics are open extended hours and are useful for minor illnesses and injuries requiring more immediate treatment.

Note that if you have a serious medical emergency, go to the emergency department. Don’t delay medical attention for potentially serious health conditions like a high fever, shortness of breath, and chest pain.

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Online Urgent and Primary Care

K Health offers online urgent care and primary care services for an affordable price, right from the comfort of your home.

Urgent Care

Urgent care conditions that can be treat using K Health:

  • UTIs
  • Strep throat
  • Cold and flu
  • Rashes
  • Allergies
  • Dental infections
  • Back and neck pain
  • And more

Primary Care

Primary care condition that can be managed or treated using K Health:

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I use urgent care for primary care?
Urgent care is not a replacement for primary care. However, it can be useful when you need medical attention and your doctor’s office isn’t open.
When should a patient go to the ER instead of urgent care?
If you have a health concern that is serious or potentially life-threatening, go to the emergency room.
Why is it better to go to urgent care and not the hospital?
If you have a minor, non-life-threatening health condition, you will likely experience shorter wait times at urgent care than in an emergency room. An urgent care visit is also typically much less expensive than an emergency room visit.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.

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