Primary, Urgent, Emergency Care and Online Doctor Visits - What's the Difference?

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The first few minutes after experiencing an accident, injury or illness are typically the most important – especially as you decide where to go for your medical care. From broken bones to allergic reactions, knowing when to choose primary care, urgent care, virtual care or emergency care can be the most important step in receiving the care you need, when and where you need it.

Primary Care

What is primary care?

Primary care typically includes family medicine doctors, internists and pediatricians, specifically trained and skilled in health promotion, disease prevention, health maintenance, counseling, patient education as well as diagnosing and treating acute and chronic illnesses.

When should you use primary care?

Scheduling routine doctor’s visits, including your annual physical exam, is important to maintain overall health. Over time, your primary care doctor forms a complete picture of your past and current health to better protect you against future health complications. Between exams, your primary care doctor can also help to diagnose and treat minor illnesses and injuries.

Where can you go for primary care?

Use our Find a Doctor tool to locate a primary care doctor in your area, and schedule an appointment today.

Urgent Care

What is urgent care?

Urgent care clinics offer same-day appointments that treat a variety of non-life threatening health conditions requiring immediate medical attention. While primary care clinics typically see patients Monday through Friday during regular business hours, urgent care clinics offer services after hours, on weekends and during holidays.

When should you use urgent care?

Though you should always try to set up an appointment with your primary care doctor before using an urgent care clinic, choose urgent care for non-emergency conditions that come up when your primary care isn’t available, such as:

  • Upper respiratory problems, such as sore throat, ear ache or sinus symptoms
  • Non-life threatening allergic reactions
  • Minor skin infections and rashes
  • Minor burns
  • Insect bites, minor animal or human bites
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Minor cuts, contusions or abrasions

Where can you go for urgent care?

Use our Find a Service to locate walk-in care in your area. Save your spot online to help reduce your wait time. Select your walk-in care location and a time slot convenient for you. This will allow you to show up closer to when a provider is available to see you.

Virtual Care

What is virtual care?

Virtual care is available to individuals 2 years old and up in Iowa through our patient portal, MyUnityPoint. Two virtual care options – virtual urgent care and SmartExam – are available every day from 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. Providers can diagnose, recommend treatment and prescribe medication, as appropriate for minor ailments and illnesses. Please note: Some conditions can’t be treated virtually or are only treated virtually for certain age groups.

Virtual urgent care is a video visit with a provider. Patients must have a mobile, desktop or table device with camera/video capabilities. Insurance is accepted. Co-pays and coverages vary. Patients must schedule an appointment from their personal MyUnityPoint account or an approved proxy account.

SmartExam is an online screening tool that allows you to be treated in less than an hour without seeing a provider. This intelligent tool asks questions based on your symptoms and answers to previous questions. A provider reviews your information and offers a treatment plan or requests you’re seen in person. Insurance is not accepted. The cost is $30 per screening and is payable through credit/debt online only. You’re not charged unless a diagnosis is made.

How do you access virtual care?

A MyUnityPoint account is required for virtual urgent care and SmartExam. Here’s how to access these convenient features if you have a MyUnityPoint account:

  • In your account, simply sign in on the app or at
  • Click on "Your Menu" at the top
  • Select "Virtual Urgent Care" or "E-Visit - SmartExam" to get started

If you don’t have a MyUnityPoint account, you can do the following:

Once registration is complete, follow the steps above. You can log in using your browser, or download the app by searching for "MyChart" and selecting the "MyUnityPoint" version. Using the app is not required. Please note: A patient must schedule an appointment from their personal account or an approved proxy account.

Emergency Room

What is an emergency room?

An emergency room (ER) is usually part of a hospital or medical center designated to treat patients with any type of emergency or trauma. Emergency rooms operate around-the-clock, providing full emergency medical support and resources on a walk-in basis.

When should you go to the emergency room?

Always choose emergency care when you’re facing a severe, life-threatening condition. Dial 9-1-1 or visit your ER right away if you, or someone around you, is experiencing any of the following emergency symptoms or conditions:

  • Chest pains or symptoms of heart attack or stroke
  • Seizure
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Head injury or pain
  • Poisoning
  • Choking or difficulty breathing
  • Open fractures, severe cuts, burns or uncontrollable bleeding
  • Fever in elderly individuals or young children

Where can you go for emergency room care?

Use our Find a Location tool to locate emergency care in your area. Our emergency departments are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to treat people of all ages. When needed, our emergency medicine teams work closely with other medical and surgical specialists to coordinate the best plan of care for you. If you’re concerned about a medical emergency and need immediate care, call 9-1-1 or visit the nearest emergency department.

What Type of Appointment Do I Need?

Primary Care

Primary Care encompasses the comprehensive treatment of a number of diseases in symptoms and specialties including pediatrics, internal medicine and family medicine. Rather than specializing in one particular area of medicine, the physician is trained to meet all the needs of patients as one point of contact. Examples of symptoms and conditions treated by a primary care provider can include:

  • Minor medical problems and injuries
  • Physicals/Sports Physicals
  • Medicine Checks
  • Long Term Care
  • Medication Refill
  • Ongoing Symptoms (ex: Continued Back Pain)
  • Care or Treatment Planning
  • Disease Management
  • Managing Existing Conditions (Migraines, Depression, Anxiety, Arthritis, etc.)
  • Substance Abuse
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes and obesity
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Skin problems
Walk-In Care

Urgent Care and Express treat minor medical problems and injuries that are not life-threatening, but need the attention of a health care provider. These are not an alternative to the emergency room, but offer the ability to get walk-in care without an appointment for all patient ages. Urgent Care is available after hours, weekends and holidays. Our Urgent Care Clinics can provide medical treatment for minor illness and injuries such as:

  • Allergies
  • Burns
  • Colds
  • Coughs
  • Cuts (Stitches)
  • Earaches or Ear Infections
  • Fevers
  • Minor Medical Problems and Injuries
  • Minor Eye Care
  • Flu
  • Fractures (X-Ray On-Site at Most Locations)
  • Infections
  • Sore Throats
  • Sprains, Including Sprained Ankles (X-Ray On-Site at Most Locations)
  • Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
  • Yeast Infections
  • Certain Rapid Tests

Please note: Flu shots, physicals and/or sports physicals are not offered at every walk-in care location.

*If you are experiencing chest pain or shortness of breath, please go to the Emergency Department or call 911 immediately. For less serious medical issues, such as physicals, medication refills or to leave a message for your primary care doctor, you can access your My UnityPoint patient portal 24/7!

Virtual Care

Connect with a UnityPoint Health provider online using MyUnityPoint to access virtual urgent care or SmartExam. Virtual care doctors can diagnose, recommend treatment and prescribe medication when necessary for commonly treated conditions. Available every day, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for individuals 2 years and older located in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota.

Virtual care should be used for minor, common ailments and illnesses. Some examples, and the qualifying age to receive virtual care or SmartExam for that condition, include: 

Condition Virtual Urgent Care SmartExam
Acne 2+ 2+
Burn 2+ 2+
Cold/Flu 2+ 2+
Cold Sores 13+ 18+
Constipation 2+ 18+
Cough/Upper Respiratory Infection 2+ 18+
Diarrhea 2+ 18+
Fever 2+ 18+
Head Lice 2+ 2+
Heartburn 2+ 18+
Headache/Migraine 18+ 18+
Joint Pan 2+ 18+
Rash 2+ 18+
Red Eye 2+ 2+
Sinuses 2+ 2+
Sore Throat 2+ 18+
Urinary Tract Infection 13+ (female only) 18+
Vaginal Infection (yeast/bacterial vaginosis) 18+ 18+
Vomiting 2+ 18+

Emergency Care

Emergency rooms are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week for severe or life-threatening conditions. Conditions that require emergency care include excessive bleeding, broken bones, chest pain or trouble breathing. Emergency services include diagnostic testing and access to specialists. 

Examples of symptoms and conditions treated by emergency departments can include:

  • Symptoms of a heart attack, including severe chest pain, sweating and shortness of breath.
  • Profuse bleeding or blood loss that continues even after direct pressure has been placed on the wound.
  • Severe abdominal pain.
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness, loss of coordination, balance or vision problems, which are signs of stroke.
  • High fever and vomiting that continues nonstop for several hours.
  • Signs of meningitis for adults: severe headaches, neck/joint pain and stiffness, vomiting, high temperature, sensitivity to light or babies and small children: high-pitched whimpering/crying, lethargy, fussiness, restlessness, high fever, vomiting, cold extremities, refusing food, pale or blotchy skin.
  • Seizures lasting longer than five minutes.
  • Injuries occurring from an accident or fall - intense back or neck pain, obvious compound fractures and/or dislocations of bones, deep cuts and severe burns.