What’s the Difference between a Walk-in Clinic, Urgent Care and the ER?

Knowing the difference in services and costs between urgent care clinics, walk-in clinics and the ER can save you time and money.
Knowing the difference in services and costs between urgent care clinics, walk-in clinics and the ER can save you time and money. [ CHINNAPONG | Shutterstock ]
Published April 7|Updated April 7

By Sally Moe, Times Total Media Correspondent

There are more options for in-person and virtual medical care than ever before, but with all that choice comes confusion. How do they differ, and are they covered by your medical insurance? Or conversely, can you get seen if you don’t have medical insurance? Let’s break it down.

Walk-in clinic In the first tier of care, a walk-in clinic’s staff typically includes nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants. They diagnose certain common conditions and illnesses such as ear infections, the flu or strep throat. They can also write prescriptions if medically appropriate.

Walk-in clinics are convenient locations where you can schedule and receive immediate care. They can handle treatment plans, prescriptions and minor health care concerns.

Walk-in clinics offer a variety of health care services, including:

• Treatment for ear and sinus infections, colds, flu, strep throat and other minor illnesses

• Treatment for minor wounds, such as non-severe cuts, blisters and skin abrasions

• Limited chronic condition screenings

• Immunizations for the flu, meningitis, shingles and other illnesses

• Health screenings for women’s health and sexually transmitted infections (STIs or STDs)

• Treatment for sprains and back pain

Though they may take many or most insurances, insurance is not typically required.

Retail walk-in clinic This type of walk in clinic is part of a retail location, i.e. Publix, CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Costco, Target, a mall, etc. They are inside those locations and typically staff nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants. They can treat non-emergencies and prescribe medications. Some clinics, like CVS’s Minute Clinic, offer virtual care as well, and include instructions on their site that detail the steps for accessing that care (but are not covered by certain health care plans).

Urgent care clinic Also known as an acute care clinic. Like walk-in clinics, you don’t have to make an appointment to be seen. Urgent care clinics can take care of more serious injuries and illnesses. This can include splinting and casting broken bones. They also treat respiratory conditions that need prompt attention but do not need full-scale emergency room care.

Urgent care clinics have higher-level diagnostic equipment, such as X-ray machines. But they’re not equipped for major surgery or procedures that require anesthesia. In most cases, if you don’t have insurance, they will allow you to pay affordable cash prices for services.

Urgent care clinics usually have at least one physician on staff. They work together with nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants. Urgent care clinics offer such services as:

• Non-life-threatening asthma and bronchitis treatment • Allergy care

• Animal bite treatment • Casts and splints • Digestive issue care • X-rays

• Infection treatment • Minor burn care • Minor wound care • STD testing

Online urgent care One example of the expanding phenomenon of online urgent care is PlushCare, which identifies as “virtual primary care and mental health treatment when you need it.” Prescriptions are sent to your local pharmacy; online therapy is also available. PlushCare accepts most major insurances, but insurance is not required. According to their website, urgent care appointments are available online within 15 minutes, 24/7.

Hospital emergency room A hospital emergency room is best saved for life-threatening emergencies: heart attack, stroke, appendicitis, severe burns, gunshot wound, anaphylaxis … you get the idea. But if you are truly miserable, and everything else is closed and you can’t wait until tomorrow, the ER is not going to turn you away. (Enacted in 1986, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act [EMTALA] is a federal law that requires public hospitals to provide stabilizing treatment to anyone who comes to the ER, regardless of their ability to pay.)

Bear in mind: The average ER visit can cost a patient at least $750 while the same treatment at an urgent care without insurance can cost as little as $150.

Information for this article gathered from,,,, and