Emergency Room Vs. Urgent Care: Which Saves You Time & Money?

February 3, 2012

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – Many people with an ache or pain they head to the emergency room, even for problems that aren?t serious or life-threatening.

According to the journal Health Affairs, almost one in every three ER visits is by patients who don?t have a life-threatening ailment. That means their hospital visit is costing them more money and time. “I have some experience working in the ER and I saw quite a bit of people who would be more efficiently dealt with in an urgent care,? said Dr. Andrew Brown, an urgent care physician.

Brown said you should go to an urgent care center if you can?t see your regular doctor and when you have a mild condition including minor burns or injuries, sprains and strains, coughs, colds, sore throats, ear infections, fever or flu-like symptoms, rash or other skin ailment or mild asthma.

If you have a life-threatening emergency or after-hours trauma, Brown says you should head to the emergency room for critical conditions including chest pain, difficulty breathing, severe bleeding or head trauma, loss of consciousness or sudden loss of or blurred vision.

But going to the emergency room isn?t always the fastest way to get help and it isn?t always the cheapest. Dr. Ken Wright, an emergency room physician, said the price difference between the emergency room and urgent care is based on the procedures and personnel they have to staff. ?Their ability to do tests like CAT scans or ultrasounds is limited. Because they don?t have to pay for these services and specialists to be on call, their cost is lower,? Wright said. ?We don?t have to maintain labs and we have a smaller staff,? Brown added.

For example, according to Mountain States Health Alliance, a strep throat visit to the ER could cost you more than $400. The same tests and treatment at an urgent care center would cost anywhere from $125 to $300.

When debating when and where to go, Brown said to just remember the names. ?If it?s an urgent condition, that?s milder, come to urgent care. If it?s an emergency, go to the ER.?

One other difference between urgent care centers and emergency rooms is the hours. Emergency rooms are required to be open 24 hours a day, but privately-funded urgent care centers have set hours.

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