Urgent Care, Retail Clinic, or Primary Doctor: Which One Should You Visit?


September 20, 2022

Long gone are the days of waiting for the county doc to ride on horseback to your house when you’re under the weather. These days, you have a variety of healthcare choices, from in person to online. You could book an appointment with your doctor, rush to the ER, or seek convenient care. Here are your main options, along with tips for selecting the best one.

Disclaimer: the following is intended for informational use only and should not replace or be used as medical guidance. If you have questions or concerns about your health, contact your doctor directly for advice.

Primary Care Provider

Your primary care provider (PCP) is your medical home. This is the person you see for routine wellness checks and chronic conditions. Your PCP can also care for occasional injuries or illnesses. Because your PCP knows your medical history, he or she should be your first choice for regular health needs.

When to Call Your PCP

As a general rule, call your PCP first when you’re feeling unwell. The office may be able to get you in for a same- or next-day appointment. If not, then you can turn to another form of care.

Of course, illnesses never seem to follow a convenient schedule. Symptoms can and often do seem to crop up at night or on the weekend. When that happens, you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of seeking treatment right away or waiting to see your regular doc. And for symptoms that disrupt your sleep or fevers that don’t go down with medication, you may need care that can’t wait until business hours.

Many doctor’s offices and insurance companies offer 24-hour nurse lines. Calling could help you decide where to get treatment.


When you don’t feel well, getting in the car, driving across town and sitting in a crowded waiting room can feel daunting. You might also worry about picking up other bugs while waiting to check out your own. Telehealth provides a convenient alternative to traditional in-person care.

Telemedicine services are delivered through virtual platforms. You might be able to video chat, message back and forth, or upload pictures.

This approach is not only convenient, but it also lets you keep your germs to yourself at home.

When to Use Telehealth Visits

Most telehealth providers offer consultations for simple concerns like coughs, colds and upset bellies. Earaches, skin rashes and urinary infections may be appropriate for this service as well. Even minor injuries can be discussed through virtual visits.

Online healthcare relies on licensed doctors and nurses who can write prescriptions. If needed, an order can be sent to your local pharmacy at the end of the call.

But one drawback is that the provider can’t run any lab work. If you present with symptoms of strep throat or COVID-19, the doctor won’t have a way to confirm the diagnosis. Rather, you’ll be instructed about the next steps to take. You may be advised to schedule a local test. So use telehealth for non-emergency situations that don’t require a physical exam.

Appointment Info

One upside to virtual care is that it can be more affordable than an in-person visit. Some health insurance plans include generous coverage for virtual care through a preferred service. But even if you have to pay out of pocket, there’s often a flat fee that’s posted up front so you’re not surprised.

When looking for a telehealth service to use, start by visiting your insurance company’s website. If yours doesn’t have a partnership with any service in particular, read reviews for the major options and pick one that makes the most sense for you.

After signing in, you’ll be directed to the next available caregiver. Some platforms may even let you pick your provider or schedule ahead.

Walk-in Clinic

If you need or prefer an in-person visit, consider a walk-in clinic. There, you can receive same-day treatment for a variety of minor health concerns.

When to Use a Walk-in Clinic

Common ailments seen at walk-ins include:

  • Blisters and other small wounds
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Ear pain
  • Eye infections
  • Minor sprains or strained muscles
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Skin rashes
  • Sore throats, coughs, and other cold and flu symptoms
  • Urinary tract infections

This isn’t the place to go for emergency care or serious problems. But it can be a decent sub for a sick visit to your PCP. Physicians can’t always squeeze in last-minute patients. Walk-ins offer a viable alternative. And since they usually have evening and weekend hours, they work well when the doctor’s office is closed.

Convenient care clinics aren’t just for illnesses and injuries, though. At some facilities, you can also get preventive care. That might include sports physicals, STI screenings and immunizations.

Some walk-in providers will even provide short-term refills of your regular medications. If you run out of meds at an inconvenient time, a temporary prescription could hold you over until a chat with your regular doctor.

Appointment Info

As the name suggests, walk-in clinics don’t require appointments. Most facilities do let you reserve a time slot, though, and scheduling ahead could reduce your wait time. When you’re under the weather, the sooner you can get a diagnosis and back to bed, the better.

At a walk-in, you may not see a physician. Many are staffed by nurse practitioners (NP) or physician assistants (PA).

Walk-in clinics are often located inside retail stores, like CVS and Walgreens, but you may have local freestanding ones in your area.

Urgent Care

Many people use the terms “walk-in” and “urgent care” interchangeably, but there are some differences. Think of urgent care centers as a step up (in terms of services offered) from walk-in clinics.

When to Use Urgent Care

Urgent cares and walk-ins address many of the same issues. If you have a sore throat, a UTI or a rash, an urgent care center can help.

But an urgent care facility might be able to help with more serious problems, too. For one thing, there’s often an on-site X-ray machine. This means providers can diagnose and splint simple broken bones. Other problems that might land you at an urgent care office include minor burns, dog bites or allergic reactions.

A general rule for urgent care facilities is that they make sense for problems that should be addressed within 24 hours. You wouldn’t want to ignore a nasty bruise or a persistent earache longer than a day, but your life probably won’t be in jeopardy if you don’t get to the doctor immediately.

Appointment Info

Like walk-ins, urgent care centers have extended hours. Some are open 24/7, but it depends on the location. Scheduling ahead is usually optional.

While many urgent cares are staffed by PAs or NPs, these facilities may have more doctors on staff than walk-ins typically do. The physicians may not be there at all hours, though.

Both walk-in clinics and urgent care centers have a major advantage over emergency rooms: affordability. Many urgent care visits cost $200 or less. You could spend hundreds — or even thousands — more on an ER trip for the same diagnosis.

Emergency Room

Yes, the ER is pricey. There are some times, though, when it’s the only appropriate option.

When to Use the ER

Emergency departments are a must for life-threatening situations. Chest pains, head injuries and slurred speech should be seen in the ER right away. Seizures and sudden weakness also call for the ER.

The emergency room is also the place for the more critical versions of urgent-care situations. Example? A run-of-the-mill broken bone may be appropriate for urgent care. But a bone sticking through the skin needs ER attention. This principle holds true when it comes to mild versus moderate versions of things like cuts, burns, breathing problems, stomach pain and more.

A really bad headache? Maybe a walk-in for something stronger than Tylenol. The worst headache of your life? Emergency room, stat.

If there’s ever a chance that a situation is life or death, head to the ER right away. The emergency department exists to provide lifesaving care in those moments, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

And if you do think you need emergency care and can’t drive yourself to the hospital (or doubt that you can), don’t hesitate to call 911.