Urgent Care vs ER

Few things are scarier than having a medical emergency and trying to figure out where to get help. Most people immediately think that having a pressing medical issue should result in a trip to the emergency room. However, this is not always the case. Many medical issues can be properly addressed by utilizing an urgent care medical facility. Knowing the difference between when to use an emergency room versus when to use an urgent care facility can result in potential savings of thousands of dollars.

Emergency Room

Emergency rooms (ER) are located in hospitals and offer 24-hour medical care. They exist in order to treat life-threatening medical emergencies or conditions that potentially could seriously jeopardize one’s health. To deal with these issues, ERs are equipped with the medical equipment that is necessary for life-threatening situations. The treating physician should have a medical degree that includes a specialization in emergency medicine. Since the ER is intended only to treat a few patients at a time, there are a limited number of staff members. Common issues treated in the ER include: severe bleeding, substantial cuts, substantial difficult breathing, severe chest pain, gunshot wounds, minor burns, vomiting or coughing up blood, broken bones, severe allergic reactions, poisoning, head injury, spinal injury, and acute abdominal pain.

Urgent Care Facility

Urgent care facilities are increasingly becoming more common. Individuals seek treatment at urgent care facilities as an option when the medical issue is not so severe as to go to the ER but it cannot wait long enough to see a primary care physician. The medical equipment at these facilities is limited but include the basics, such as x-ray and EKG machines, as well as on-site labs that are needed to deal with somewhat urgent (but not life-threatening) medical issues that patients experience. The attending physician should also have a medical degree and a specialization in emergency medicine. Staff is also limited at urgent care facilities as they are also intended to only treat a few patients at a time. Some common issues that are treated at an urgent care facility include: cuts with minimal blood but that requires stitches, mild breathing difficulty, fever, severe sore throat, sprains, skin rashes, dehydration, urinary tract infections, mild to moderate allergic reactions, flu, poison ivy, ringworm, laryngitis, upper respiratory issues, mononucleosis, cold sores, and athlete’s foot.

Cost Difference

The greatest benefit in properly understanding whether to go to the ER or an urgent care facility is the cost. The difference can be staggering. According to the Health Care Cost Institute, the average cost for an ER visit was $1,917 in 2016. However, if a patient’s condition requires many test or services, this number can easily grow by thousands of dollars more. Emergency room visit charges include a facility fee, which is the cost just to use the ER; it usually increases as the severity of the treated condition increases, as well as charges for tests and services used. This does not include the cost for physician care, which is billed separately, and some medical insurance companies do not cover if the physician is out-of-network. Urgent care facilities are typically around $100 without using insurance. The cost can be much lower as many insurance companies offer a flat rate for using urgent care facilities.

Tips to Save Money

Medical care can be expensive, but there are many ways to save money on costs when an immediate medical need occurs. Visits from a primary care physician will usually be lower than the ER or an urgent care facility. If using an ER or an urgent care facility, try to use a facility that is in-network: Insurance companies have agreements with certain facilities and physicians that will greatly reduce costs, and not using them have a high cost. If insurance coverage isn’t an option, be sure to ask the facility about pricing options; many urgent care facilities will work with patients’ income to fix a reasonable price for treatment. Navigating the medical care industry can be confusing and costly but receiving urgent care doesn’t have to be when it’s truly needed.


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