Emergency Room or Urgent Care?

In August a huge tree branch fell on our roof.

Since my hubby is a tree removal expert, we did the removal ourselves. He sawed the branches off as much as possible to remove weight from the roof (we have an earth berm so the roof is pretty accessible) and I hauled the piles of debris to the back acres to be dealt with later.

When he got most of the branches off the tree, we lassoed it with a rope so I could tug on the rope to guide the tree off the roof while he chainsawed the branch from the main part of the tree.

Unfortunately, as I tugged, the branch swung around, hit the ground and a part of it bounced up and clobbered my arm, resulting in what we though was a broken elbow. A huge swollen spot appeared and it bled pretty good.

Since it was after business hours, we headed for the emergency room, where after about an hour, a doctor read the xray results and informed us that nope, it wasn’t broken (thanks be!).

That weekend, my newly graduated nurse daughter-in-law informed me that we probably could have gotten cheaper and faster care at an urgent care center.

Why Didn’t We Know About Urgent Care?

The last time we had to utilize the ER, hubby was having a pretty massive artery blockage, which required stints and involved a 911 call and an ambulance. This was clearly the best place for him.

The time before that was in the late 1980’s when my youngest fell from a tree and broke his arm. I was at work and my spouse took our broken child to the medical clinic we usually use. He waited there, with the kid bleeding all over the floor for quite some time and then was told to take him to a local hospital for treatment!

Urgent Care Center History

Urgent care centers were not prevalent in our area in the 1980’s. Although they began to appear in the US in the 1970s (according to Wikipedia anyway), I didn’t start hearing about them until around 2006. Several appeared around our county, showing up in unlikely places such as local strip malls.

According to Urgent Care Association of America, there are now about 8700 urgent care centers around the country.

What Is Urgent Care

An urgent care center is typically privately owned, utilizes extended hours and is there to treat non-life-threatening medical situations, perform basic X-rays and lab work, and dispense prescriptions per Health Magazine.

At this writing, we haven’t yet gotten the bill or insurance statement from our little trip to the ER, but I’m certain the news will not be good! I had triage, two xrays, a doctor visit, an xray technician and 3 sets of administrators asking the very same set of questions. I also swallowed one pain pill and walked out with a sling and 2 rolls of elastic bandages. Care to guess what my charges will be?

Why Is Urgent Care Cheaper?

Hospitals are required by law to treat emergencies and according to several sources they then make up the cost of treating non-insured folks by charging more for treating insured patients!

Urgent care centers reportedly charge a third to a fourth for the care they give.  They can exclude non-insured patients, are not required to provide care 24/7 and may utilize nurse practitioners or physicians assistants instead of actual doctors to provide the care.

Hospitals also have to maintain a triage center – to separate the life threatening visitors from those such as I was, someone with a minor injury. Guess who waits longer for care? Visitors to urgent care centers typically should not have life threatening situations, so there is a greatly reduced need for triage and visitors don’t get a bunch of life or death cases bumping them down in the wait line.

What Should You Do Now To Save Money Using Urgent Care?

Find urgent care facilities in your area. Ask your physician for a recommendation to one. Learn and post the urgent care address, hours and phone number. Drive the route when you aren’t pressed by an emergency, so you know how to get there.

Learn what your urgent care center will treat and won’t treat and make sure your household members also know all of this information.

Know what circumstances actually need an emergency room with all of it’s specialization and expertise.

When an accident occurs, you will then be prepared to make a decision as to whether you should visit urgent care and try to save some money, or if it is better to go to the ER to make sure you have available what is needed.

I’ just glad my arm was NOT broken.  The other good news?  The roof and skylights all remained intact!

Do you use urgent care?  What was your urgent care experience?


Emergency Room or Urgent Care? — 24 Comments

  1. I would not be so optimistic about the prospect of saving money via urgent care. I have no insurance, so when I took a fall and got a badly abraded hand with mulch in the wound, I tried to clean it and tend it myself. When I nearly fainted while doing it, my husband took me to the local urgent care. They spent perhaps ten, fifteen minutes giving me a quick local anesthetic shot and scrubbing my hand, then putting a little bandage on it. (Once it was no longer really dirty and skinned up, it wasn’t as bad underneath). That little visit cost four hundred dollars and took months to pay off. Maybe it would have been even more at the ER, but Urgent Care is a for-profit business and they are no bargain.

  2. Our Urgent Care does not accept insurance. So, when I tried to go there I would have had to pay cash and it wouldn’t go toward my deductible. Thus, I’d actually be paying extra to go to urgent care.

  3. I was under the impression that UrgentCare charged up front as opposed to billing the insurance and then getting a bill in the mail for the portion not covered by insurance.

    I have to pass an UrgentCare center just to get to the hospital!

  4. Our insurance, for some reason that nobody can ever explain, does not consider any urgent care facility ‘in network’ so they almost advocate going to the ER. Otherwise, I would definitely look at urgent care first. Luckily we haven’t needed either of their services, but it sucks that we would have to go to the ER to reduce our out of pocket costs.

    • You need to do what makes sense for you, first of all, for your health and safety, then for your pocketbook. That said, I’m betting that a lot of doctors and medical centers will be looking for ways to cut costs very soon. You might keep tabs on this one.

  5. I will always use urgent care rather than emergency room. The wait times are usually shorter, and if they’re not, they’ll often be able to give you some pain killers while you’re waiting. When I had appendicitis a few months ago, I went into urgent care with abdominal pain, and even though there was a long wait to get into a room, they had someone come talk to me right away and get me some pain meds.

    I don’t really know about the cost differential though, I don’t have any basis of comparison.

  6. The best ER I ever went to was in Shelbyville KY. I was just passing through, but had incurred an injury. They got me in and out in two hours.

    Every other ER I’ve been to has been a nightmare. Understandably so. But I do prefer using urgent care. They’re a great resource for those without insurance, too. You have to pay them upfront usually (unlike the ER,) but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper, like you said. And a good alternative if you can’t convince a doctor to see you without that little card for those of us in the states.

  7. We’ve used urgent care twice in the past few years, and both times they ended up referring us to a hospital instead. They’ve been beneficial in that they called ahead to the hospital to let us know we were coming (cutting down the wait time there) but we basically ended up paying two bills for the same event. I think the key is to go to them for the right types of injuries/illnesses. Unfortunately it can be hard to know what those are ahead of time.

  8. I’ve been to two urgent care centers, and they’ve both been within hospitals, so if you have to be transferred to the hospital, like I did for my appendicitis, they just bring a wheelchair to your room in urgent care and wheel you over to the hospital. I guess that probably makes a big difference, I don’t know if I’d be so quick to choose urgent care over the emergency room if urgent care weren’t also inside the hospital.

  9. I would go for myself, but my pediatrician implored me to wake him up any time rather than taking my kids to an urgent care facility. Apparently, many of them do not have people with pediatric experience and pediatric medicine can be different than treating adults. So, I would either take my kids to the pediatrician or the ER!

  10. Crazy! Glad to hear that the injury was not worse. I don’t have a lot of experience with urgent care versus emergency. It’s interesting to learn a bit about the potential price differences, at least in the States. The last time I went to emergency was when I bonked my head on a corner shelf at work, ouch.

  11. Emergency rooms are a rip-off. The only time I think you should go to one is in a life threatening situation. Most urgent cares will accept insurance but they also take cash which is great if you have an HSA. It may or may not count towards your deductible but for something like a broken arm, urgent cares are perfect.

  12. The inflated prices at hospitals are totally outrageous. I should write down where the nearest urgent care locations are so they’re easily accessible in case of an emergency.

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