When medical care is needed outside of traditional office hours or when an appointment with your physician is unavailable, it can be difficult to decide where to go. In many cases, choosing an urgent care center instead of the emergency room can save you time and money, as well as freeing up emergency resources for those who truly need them.
The Urgent Care Center
Urgent care centers are for non-life-threatening medical conditions that require attention right away but are not emergencies. Examples of reasons to visit an urgent care center include fever without rash, minor trauma (for example, a common sprain), painful urination, persistent diarrhea, severe sore throat, and vomiting.
Depending on your medical insurance plan, the copay for an urgent care visit will vary but it is typically a significant savings when compared to emergency room (ER) costs. Check your plan’s benefits to determine your out-of-pocket costs for urgent care vs. emergency room services.
Generally, your wait time at an urgent care center will be shorter than at an ER. Most urgent care centers have extended hours and can see you when your physician is unavailable, including weekends and some holidays. The average wait time at an urgent care center is less than one hour, and usually no appointment is required.
Many urgent care centers offer physical exams, lab tests, EKGs and X-rays in addition to qualified nurses and physicians.
The Emergency Room
Emergency rooms are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making them a popular option for medical situations that arise outside of typical doctor’s hours, or when a patient does not have a primary care physician. Emergency rooms treat severe and life-threatening conditions, and they offer specialty equipment and personnel for a wide variety of medical issues.
The average wait time at an emergency room can be much longer than at an urgent care center. Patients are typically seen based on the urgency of their symptoms, so a patient with a sprained ankle or sore throat may wait for an extended period before being seen.
In terms of immediate cost, an ER copay can be double or triple the cost of an urgent care copay. Beyond that, it is impossible to know the upfront costs of your care in the ER until you receive your bills in the mail several weeks after treatment. From your insurance provider’s viewpoint, the cost of a hospital claim is much higher than the cost of a doctor’s visit or urgent care appointment. On a much larger scale, these costs can be passed on to the members in the form of rate increases.
Finally, the emergency room is a valuable resource for those with medical emergencies. Seeking emergency room care when not medically necessary prevents the doctors and nurses from being able to focus solely on those cases which are true emergencies. Using an urgent care center when appropriate frees up those resources for those who need them.
Click here for a list of medical conditions that would warrant a trip to the ER.
When in doubt, or if you are having a medical emergency, head to the closest ER or call 911. You can also ask your primary care physician to provide guidelines on when to choose urgent care over the emergency room.