Prevention | Safety
October 28, 2015

ER or walk-in clinic? How to make the call


Emergency room vs. Walk-in Clinic: Making the choice can be tricky. Here are important points to keep in mind.


Chest pain. Shortness of breath. Changes in mental status or abrupt changes in strength, vision or sensation. Significant injury or severe pain of any kind.

These are all clear signs that a person should consider a trip to the emergency room.

But a walk-in or urgent care clinic can handle a variety of conditions that many people might not realize when they are in the throes of assessing a sick or injured loved one.

“Our clinics have changed with time,” said Deb McCroskey, M.D., director of Vanderbilt Walk-In Clinics. “We used to see mostly colds, sore throats, urinary tract infections, but we now see minor car accidents, patients with abdominal pain. Sometimes it’s like a miniature emergency room.”

Conditions including persistent rashes (without shortness of breath), colds and flu, insect bites or ankle sprain almost never require hospital emergency care. The jointly operated Vanderbilt Health and Williamson Medical Center Walk-In Clinics and the Vanderbilt Walk-In Clinic in Belle Meade, for example, are staffed with board-certified physicians, perform some minor procedures and are equipped to perform a wide range of diagnostic testing including X-rays, lab testing and EKGs.

Going to such a higher-level walk-in clinic can result in shorter waits times for more appropriate, less expensive care.

But between obvious signs that a person does or does not need emergency care is a big gray area, McCroskey said. Judgment depends more on severity and whether other symptoms are present. A fever doesn’t automatically mean a trip to the ER, but a fever with a severe headache and changes in mental status does.

Sorting through it all can be confusing for people without medical backgrounds.

“Almost any complaint can have a spectrum where that complaint can be potentially serious,” said Ian Jones, M.D., of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Department of Emergency Medicine. “The good thing is that the urgent care centers can often pick up on things and if they need to, can refer to the ER.”

Jones said making a list of all conditions that should trigger a visit to the emergency department is difficult, but life-threatening symptoms of heart attack and stroke such as chest pain, shortness of breath and difficulty with vision, speech and weakness of the arms or legs are among them. This is especially important since early recognition and treatment of a heart attack or stroke can be life saving. Refresh yourself on all the warning signs here.

Calling your primary care physician or a nurse line is a good way to get advice on where your problem should be handled. But for diagnosing, McCroskey said, “Seeing the person and how they are acting is crucial.” Vanderbilt’s walk-in clinics don’t advise over the phone for this reason.

“It’s good to get a set of trained eyes on you,” Jones agreed. “It really is much better to be able to talk to people, ask questions and conduct an exam. That gets you much further than just hearing about it.”

Both physicians urge caution about searching symptoms on the Internet, which causes some patients to become convinced they have something more serious than they do. There is a also wide variety of conflicting information available on the internet that may also lead some individuals to misinterpret concerning signs and symptoms.

“When you scan for symptoms on the internet, you automatically focus on the worst illness on the list,” McCroskey said. “Then the anxiety kicks in and you get more symptoms. By the time you come in to the clinic, its impossible to figure out which symptoms are real and which are psychological.”

But whether you choose a walk-in clinic or emergency room, neither are substitutes for having a primary care physician who takes a holistic approaching to managing your care on an ongoing basis.

Vanderbilt Walk-In Clinics, for example, don’t manage birth control or other long-term care medications for cholesterol, diabetes, blood pressure, pain and anxiety. Primary care physicians are also best equipped to handle matters such as morning after pills, impotence, ADD/ADHD medications and weight loss – and other matters requiring ongoing maintenance.

“We’re seeing lots of people who only get care when they are sick,” Jones said. “It’s really important to get care when you’re not sick, so when you do get sick, the care is better. You’ve got someone who knows you.”


Walk-In Clinics

Vanderbilt Health and Williamson Medical Center jointly operate walk-in clinics in Middle Tennessee staffed with board-certified Vanderbilt physicians, and Vanderbilt offers care at other locations all over Middle Tennessee. Find a location near you, here.

Here is a sample of what these walk-in clinics can treat:

Common illnesses and minor injuries

Animal bites
Back pain/strains
Bladder infections
Bug bites
Ear infections
Eye infections
Flu and colds
Poison ivy
Sinus infections
Sore throats
Stomach bugs


Detailed examinations for:
Adoption physicals
Camp/sports physicals (not school physicals)
Department of Transportation (DOT) physicals
Pre-employment physicals


Hepatitis A/B

Screening and testing

Breathing treatments
Drug screenings
Lab testing
Pregnancy testing
STD testing
TB skin testing


Vanderbilt’s Children’s After-Hours Clinics offer the convenience of a walk-in clinic with care provided by a board-certified pediatrician from Children’s Hospital. No appointment is necessary, but we recommend calling your pediatrician first. Learn more about services and find locations for Children’s Hospital After-Hours Clinic here.



39 thoughts on “ER or walk-in clinic? How to make the call”

  1. Carol Smith says:

    You mentioned a new walk in in Belle Meade, do you have the address for that one?
    thank you, Carol Smith

    1. Linda Zettler says:

      Hi, Carol. Vanderbilt Health will open a new walk-in clinic at 4534 Harding Pike in Belle Meade in January 2016. It will be located in the Belle Meade Plaza near Kroger. Thank you.

  2. Rhonda says:

    It would be very beneficial to have an adult walk in clinic in the northern areas such as Hendersonville.

    1. Linda Zettler says:

      Thank you for the suggestion, Rhonda. I will definitely pass that along. – Linda

  3. Niecey says:

    Are there plans to have VUMC facilities in Rutherford or Sumner Counties?

    1. Linda Zettler says:

      Hi, Niecey – Thank you for this suggestion. I will definitely pass your recommendation along. – Linda

  4. Laraine Caldwell says:

    Will the walk-in clinic on Harding Pike offer pneumonia vaccinations and accept Vanderbilt employees’ Aetna insurance?

    1. Linda Zettler says:

      Hello, Laraine – I am reaching out to get the answers to these questions. I’ll let you know as soon as I find out. – Linda

    2. Linda Zettler says:

      Hello again, Laraine – The clinic will except Vanderbilt Aetna health insurance, but we do not offer the pneumonia shots at the Walk-In Clinics. We suggest that people see their primary care provider for that vaccination if needed. Thank you for reading. – Linda

  5. John says:

    A huge Kudos to your Walk In Clinic on Pewitt Lane in Brentwood. I especially like taking my child there for colds and earaches. Wait times are usually short. Staff is courteous, knowledgeable, professional, and have a sense of urgency. If people haven’t checked it out, it is well worth it.

    1. Linda Zettler says:

      Thank you for your nice words about the Brentwood Walk-In Clinic services. We’re so glad you’re pleased. – Linda

  6. Evonne says:

    West of Nashville could really use a clinic also. Bellevue, Kingston Springs, Fairview, Dickson, none of those areas have much available

  7. Sarge says:

    I wish we had a walk in here in Clarksville, most of our family appointments are scheduled at the main hospital in nashville but we sure wish we had something closer. They are building a emergency clinic in sango i feel that Vandy would be a lot more better to have one here as they have the main trauma 1 in Tennessee.

    1. My Southern Health says:

      Thank you so for this suggestion. I will definitely pass this along. – Linda

  8. Carolyn Butler says:

    Where is the list of locations?

    1. My Southern Health says:

      There are links in the post. And you’ll find them here:

  9. sharon pennington says:

    This is awesome! I too would love a east Nashville clinic. These are soooo needed. Thanks so much.

  10. mau halito tem cura says:

    Excellent article very useful with the rush of day to day we ended up leaving the health aside and this is a grave mistake

    Thank you for sharing this valuable information.

  11. Luke Smith says:

    Thanks for your tip to call your primary doctor to get an idea of where you should be treated. I feel like this could be a great way to save both time and money if you don’t actually need to go to the emergency room. It would also make sense to me to research some of the clinics in your area and see what their guidelines are for using their services.

  12. Kairi Gainsborough says:

    I didn’t realize that non-emergency and emergency situations could be such a gray area. Of course, something like a heart attack would be an obvious emergency, but who knows when stomach pain or a headache could mean something serious? Calling your physician any asking is a good tip. If it doesn’t seem life threating, I’ll head to an urgent care center rather than the E.R.

  13. Afton Jackson says:

    My wife and I recently moved to a new town. She has a history of bad nose bleeds, so we’re looking for good medical treatment options. I never realized that urgent care centers can give physical examinations to ensure you are in good health. I’ll share this info with my wife tonight.

  14. Kylie Dotts says:

    I thought it was interesting how you said that judgment on whether to go to the ER or an urgent care depends on the severity and if there are multiple symptoms present. I think the most important thing is being able to get help as soon as possible especially in an emergency situation. It seems that most hospitals provide emergency room services so if you live in a town or city that has a hospital it would probably be best to go there in a pinch.

  15. Max Jones says:

    We’ve been looking into family urgent care clinics in our area, wondering what they treat, so I’m glad you added a list to your article! I think that being able to have a place other than the ER to go to like a family urgent care center to be able to get taken care of when you need medical attention is really nice. I’ll have to see what I can find out and if we can utilize family urgent care in the future! Thanks for the help!

  16. Ivy Baker says:

    This is some really good information about emergency room and walk in clinics. It does seem like a good thing to know that ear infections can be handled in a walk in clinic. My nephew gets a lot of ear infections so it is good to know that a clinic can handle those.

  17. Jeremy Thompson says:

    Basically, ER is for those who are in a life or death situation while walk-in clinics are perfect for those looking for consultation and general medications. That’s perfect to learn since I’ve noticed a nearby walk-in clinic in our area and I was curious about what it does. I’m just glad to learn that if we have any kind of non-emergency medical concern, we have a nearby walk-in clinic to go to. Thanks!

  18. Georgia B says:

    Thanks for mentioning that going to a walk-in clinic or urgent care can actually help you receive shorter wait times and more appropriate and cost-efficient care. This seems like a really good thing to keep in mind when deciding between an emergency room or urgent care visit. This would also help emergency rooms be able to dedicate more of their time to those who really need immediate, life-saving care.

    1. My Southern Health says:

      You are welcome, Georgia. Thanks for reading and sharing these important points.

  19. Kenneth Gladman says:

    I like that you talked about how walk in clinics offer more services and treatments than people think. Last week my daughter was experiencing a small allergic reaction. That would have been a good time to use their services.

  20. Penelope Smith says:

    This is some really good information about urgent care clinics. It is good to know that you can go to urgent care clinics for ear and eye infection. My nephew is coming to stay with me and he has some problems with getting eye and ear infections. So, this is good for me to know.

  21. Millie Hue says:

    Thanks for pointing out that we should call an expert first to have an idea where to take our loved one when he experiences something. I will keep that in mind when my husband has felt the pain in his chest again. This will help us have an idea where to go if ever it happens again. He just had a very sharp pain in the chest last week that also disappeared after a few minutes.

  22. Mina Edinburgh says:

    I appreciated it when you said that asking the primary care physician is a good place to start so that the person knows where they can have themselves treated. We are yet to have a primary care physician, so it might be a good idea to start there. I will look for one as soon as I can since I have a feeling that my brother is developing an illness that needs to be watched.

  23. Arya Smith says:

    It really helped when you said that urgent care can help a person who really needs to be treated, and they will also refer them to the ER if more care is needed. I just got curious about the difference because I heard our neighbor will be taking their son to an urgent care clinic tonight. It appears that he had an accident while riding a motorcycle on the freeway.

  24. Sophia James says:

    Thanks for pointing out that it would be best to have a primary care physician to attend to you regardless if it is from a walk-in clinic or the other option. I will share this information with my sister to help her find a medical facility to take her son. They just need help first thing tomorrow because their son told them that he feels a sharp pain on his knee.

  25. Taylor Anderson says:

    I’ve been pretty sore from my MMA training, and I’m a little worried since I still can’t walk down the stairs. I like how you mentioned that I should find a walk-in clinic for that kind of things, as it isn’t really an emergency. What qualities should I look for when choosing a great walk in medical clinic?

  26. Mark Murphy says:

    I totally agree that it is a good thing to be able to ask questions to a doctor instead of just being told what is wrong. My wife and I have been trying to choose a new health clinic that is next to our new house since we recently moved. I will be sure to tell my wife that we should try and find a clinic where the doctors ask questions!

  27. Silas Knight says:

    It’s good to know more about my different options for health clinics. I like how walk-in clinics are described as miniature emergency rooms. It’s awesome that these clinics can help with such a large range of maladies. We should find one of those in our area.

  28. Mark Murphy says:

    I really appreciate your tip on how a walk-in clinic can mean a shorter wait time, but it is primarily for less severe symptoms. My wife and I have been concerned that our daughter’s cough might be something more serious, but the symptoms aren’t that serious yet. I will be sure to take her into the clinic to get her fast care!

  29. Jenna Hunter says:

    My niece just came down with some kind of bug and she’s been at home for a day or two. It would be really helpful if she could go to a walk-in-clinic to help her. It would be helpful for her to know that she should go to a professional rather than just looking up what it could be on the internet.

  30. Taylor Anderson says:

    I like how you mentioned that a walk-in clinic is best to visit of things like the flu or sprains. My throat has been a bit sore and I’ve lost my voice, so I’ve been wondering if I should go to the doctor. Thank you so much for pointing out which situations are best handled by a clinic and which are best for an emergency room; hopefully, I start feeling better soon.

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