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Urgent Care Vs. Emergency Care

It can be frightening when a sudden illness or injury strikes, especially if your regular doctor is not available. You need to make a choice quickly about where to get the medical attention you need, but it’s also important to have all the facts before you seek care.

What Are My Options?
Emergency Rooms
An emergency department, or emergency room (ER), is generally part of a hospital or medical center. It specializes in treating traumatic, life-threatening medical conditions such as heart attack, stroke, severe pain or bleeding, and unconsciousness. Patients often arrive by ambulance and always without an appointment, and the ER is typically open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Urgent Care Centers
Urgent care centers are freestanding, walk-in medical clinics that provide care on a no-appointment basis and are often open for extended hours, including nights and weekends. Sometimes referred to a “doc in a box,” urgent care centers are a cost-effective alternative to emergency rooms for the treatment of non-life-threatening medical situations such as cuts, sprains, simple bone fractures, flu and fever, insect bites, infections, etc. Some centers provide basic laboratory and X-ray services, and most can run diagnostic tests and dispense prescriptions.

While the American College of Emergency Physicians reports that 92 percent of emergency visits are from “very sick people who need care within 1 minute to 2 hours,” the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey estimates that one-third to one-half of all ER visits are for non-urgent care. In fact, the top three reasons for ER visits in 2007 were for superficial injuries and contusions, sprains and strains, and upper respiratory infections. (The Centers for Disease Control defines non-urgent as “needing care in 2 to 24 hours.”)

The main reason that so many emergency room visits are for non-urgent care is that hospital Emergency Departments are required by federal law to provide care to all patients, regardless of their ability to pay. Since they cannot be turned away, patients without health insurance or the necessary funds to pay out-of-pocket costs often use emergency rooms as their “go-to” healthcare provider. This puts ERs under tremendous strain and limits their ability to more quickly attend to real medical emergencies.

How is Emergency Care Different from Urgent Care?
Visits to the ER generally cost much more than those at a doctor’s office or an urgent care center. Plus:

  • Co-pay or co-insurance for ER visits is generally higher than the co-pay for doctor or urgent care center visits.
  • There may be two separate charges: one from the Emergency Room, and one from the physician who treats you. (For a regular office or urgent care visit, there is usually one charge only.)
  • Many insurance plans will not pay for an ER visit if they determine the condition was not a true emergency, leaving the patient responsible for paying the full cost. Visiting the ER for routine care like a check-up or vaccination most likely means the patient is left footing the bill.

The following are estimated costs for nine of the most common reasons people visited an ER in 2010 (Source: Medica Choice Network.)

  • Allergies: $345
  • Acute bronchitis: $595
  • Earache: $400
  • Sore throat: $525
  • Pink eye: $370
  • Sinusitis: $617
  • Strep throat: $531
  • Upper respiratory infection: $486
  • Urinary tract infection: $665

Care at urgent care centers is paid on a fee-for-service basis. They usually accept most private health insurance plans, with co-pays averaging between $25 and $50. A self-paying individual will usually be asked to make a down payment for the visit, with any additional charges billed at a later date. Cash discounts are often available for the uninsured.

The following are estimated costs for treating the same nine common ailments at urgent care centers in 2010 (Source: Medica Choice Network.)

  • Allergies: $97
  • Acute bronchitis: $127
  • Earache: $110
  • Sore throat: $94
  • Pink eye: $102
  • Sinusitis: $112
  • Strep throat: $111
  • Upper respiratory infections: $111
  • Urinary tract infections: $110

As this comparison shows, the difference between costs at an Emergency Room and those at an urgent care center are significant.

Wait Time
Emergency Rooms treat patients with the most serious conditions first, so patients with less urgent needs will often wait hours to see a doctor. Urgent care centers only see patients with routine conditions, and it’s usually on a first-come, first-served basis. Because of this, wait times at urgent care centers tend to be measured in minutes versus hours. For instance, the average wait time at Physicians Immediate Care in the West Palm Beach area is 15 minutes.

Making the Right Choice Saves Time, Money and Lives
When a serious illness or injury strikes, consider the severity of your condition, and your options. Do you need care immediately, or can it wait? If you’re not certain, call the nearest Hospital Emergency Center to explain your symptoms and ask their opinion. Find their phone number now and put it in your mobile phone contacts and/or post it in a visible place inside your home like on the refrigerator or near the landline phone.

For non-emergent, acute injuries and ailments, urgent care centers can provide the quality care you need while avoiding needless waiting and unnecessary costs.

Source: Portions of this article were excerpted from an article on

By: Physicians Immediate Care

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