Acute Care: What Is It and How Does It Work?

If you find yourself in need of emergency or urgent medical attention, the decision between which healthcare setting you go to may seem daunting, especially when you are already in distress.

When you seek this kind of medical care, or even when you are just not feeling well, the type of care you need is called “acute care.”

What exactly is acute care, and how can it address your needs? Let’s start with some of the basics.

What Is Acute Care?

Acute care can be defined as the active treatment of sudden onset, short-term, and/or life-threatening injury or illness.

The opposite of acute care is ambulatory care, which provides long-term care and chronic care to treat medical disorders that may develop slowly and worsen over time, affecting a patient’s everyday life. While acute care is reactive, ambulatory care can help promote and maintain a healthier lifestyle by providing preventative measures, tests, and treatments.

Common examples of ambulatory care include:

A significant component differentiating acute care from ambulatory care is the time pressure healthcare professionals face to prevent disability or death.

How Does Acute Care Work?

If you were to think of this as a sports analogy, ambulatory care provides outpatient services to support the long game. In contrast, acute care addresses immediate issues during inpatient assistance to get you back on the field as soon as possible.

Acute Care Has Levels

Acute care is an umbrella term for multiple tiers of medical care. There are different levels of treatment based on the severity of the acute medical conditions, ranging from minor cuts and burns to heart attacks.

Each of these requires specialized, immediate responses, and below, we highlight the different types of acute care.

Four common options for the treatment of acute medical conditions are:

When deciding which setting will provide you with the care you require, you want to make an informed decision. Let’s expand on what each of these healthcare facilities does and compare the pros and cons of each to help you conclude where to go.

What Is Intensive Critical Care and When Should You Go?

Intensive care units, more commonly known as the ICU, provide care for those who are experiencing severe, life-threatening medical conditions such as:

Pros of Intensive Critical Care

Often patients are referred to the ICU after being seen in the emergency department. A physician has likely determined the patient requires a healthcare facility stocked with specialized equipment and specialized staff able to provide 24/7 monitoring and support.

This equipment comes from medical technology companies, who use sales reps to help ensure that medical facilities are outfitted with the most up-to-date equipment.

These healthcare providers must also be able to respond quickly, as many of these patients are at risk for severe side effects or even organ failure. This level of attention is often required over a long period, sometimes weeks at a time.

Cons of Intensive Critical Care

Intensive care units are uniquely positioned to treat various emergencies and can accommodate long-term hospital stays. As a result, ICUs are often located in larger healthcare facilities in more populated areas.

Therefore, if you seek the health services provided by intensive care units, you will likely be expected to travel to urban settings.

This may be a challenge for many individuals from rural communities whose condition risks permanent disability or even death the longer it goes untreated.

What Is Emergency Care and When Should You Go?

The emergency care provided by hospital emergency departments is usually reserved for limb-or-life-threatening injuries or illnesses that require immediate attention, but the treatment or recovery is short. These facilities are available seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

You should consider a trip to the emergency department if you are experiencing symptoms such as:

Pros of Emergency Care

Healthcare professionals in the emergency department have experience providing immediate and critical care. Emergency departments provide acute care services based on an outpatient, short-term treatment model.

These environments played a critical role in the treatment of COVID-19 due to their advanced equipment, stock of medical supplies, and staff of qualified healthcare professionals.

Cons of Emergency Care

Healthcare professionals who work in critical care need to attend to patients based on the severity of their condition and the level of medical intervention required. If you go to an emergency room, you may sit in the waiting room for hours before being seen.

For many, affordability is critical when deciding where to seek medical attention. In 2022, the average out-of-pocket price for an emergency room visit for those with insurance was $526 and $2,188 for those uninsured.

However, don’t let these numbers scare you from seeking the required treatment. Trust your instincts. You are the most in-tune with your body, and if something feels seriously wrong, don’t hesitate to seek emergency care.

What Is Urgent Care and When Should You Go?

Urgent care centers are available for patients who require medical attention within 24 hours but are not in critical condition. The treatment and recovery for these conditions are often short, unlike chronic care, which can be required for weeks or even months.

Medical ailments that are commonly seen in urgent care settings are:

Pros of Urgent Care

In urgent care facilities, you can walk in without an appointment and be seen by a qualified healthcare professional that same day.

These offices often have flexible schedules, including evenings and weekends, making this an excellent option for working professionals and those seeking care for children or other family members.

Cons of Urgent Care

It has been argued that what makes urgent care attractive can also be a deterrent. Because of the quick in-and-out business model, the quality of care a patient receives is perceived to be lower than if they were to go to their primary physician.

Urgent care offices likely do not have your medical files on hand; therefore, they will likely be unaware of your medical history. Additionally, you cannot choose which doctor you see and will often see a different doctor between visits.

Based on a study by NPR, the quality of patient care is rated lower at urgent care centers than at primary care facilities. However, the cost value of each is almost identical.

What Are Walk-In Clinics and When Should You Go?

If you don’t feel very good or require testing for school or work, walk-in clinics will likely provide you the care you need without subjecting you to lengthy waits or expensive procedures and tests that may not be necessary. Healthcare providers at walk-in clinics often try to focus solely on the patient's current complaint.

Standard procedures and illnesses treated at walk-in clinics include:

Pros of Walk-In Clinics

Walk-in clinics, sometimes called “retail clinics,” provide a more cost-efficient option for medical treatments than emergency rooms.

Although they are very similar to urgent care offices in that they provide guaranteed appointments, they often have less access to specialized equipment and therefore have limited capabilities.

While there is room for technological improvement at these facilities, this is often limited by financial restrictions and poor sales-rep-to-healthcare-professional relationships.

Cons of Walk-In Clinics

Unfortunately, because walk-in clinics have limited resources and equipment and are usually staffed with only nurse practitioners and physician assistants, they may be unable to provide more complicated or involved care.

If you are experiencing an injury or illness that requires a more specialized treatment plan, walk-in clinics may ultimately defer you to a hospital for a more thorough exam. This creates an extra step between you and the care you need.

This may be frustrating if you initially select a walk-in clinic because of its accessibility and affordability compared to an emergency room.

How To Choose the Right Acute Care Setting for You

When suddenly faced with a medical emergency, you may be overwhelmed and scared, which impairs your judgment and leads to self-doubt and confusion. Often, patients are presented with the choice to seek treatment at either an urgent care center or the emergency room.

When deciding between the two, you should ask yourself how immediately you need care or if you can afford to wait. The best advice we can offer is to slow down and ask the following questions before deciding what acute care setting will take the best care of you or your loved ones.


Ultimately, your quick thinking and responsiveness will help with the outcome of your emergency medical situation. Those trained to provide acute care services can only do their job if you seek out their skills first.

Determining where to go is the first step in providing the care you need and getting you or your loved one on the road to recovery.


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