ER alternatives can save you time and money

Chances are at some point you will be faced with an unexpected medical situation and need to decide the best place to seek treatment. The emergency room used to be the only option, especially after normal business hours. With the explosion of urgent care centers and retail clinics, patients now have more choices. However, even with so many alternatives, emergency rooms visits have been on the rise, either due to convenience or lack of knowledge.

There are many advantages to choosing an urgent care facility over the emergency room. Cost can be one of the reasons. According to Anthem, the average ER visit costs you $800, as compared to $10 to $80 if you chose a retail health clinic, doctor visit or an urgent care center.

According to the National Association of Community Health Centers, Inc., at least one-third of all emergency room visits are “avoidable,” meaning non-urgent or ambulatory care sensitive and therefore treatable in primary care settings. More than $18 billion dollars are wasted annually an avoidable ER visits.

Emergency room
When to go:
If you have symptoms of heart attack, stroke or feel that your "life or limb" is in danger, go immediately to the emergency room (ER). Also, if you think you might be having a medical emergency, but are unsure, go to the ER. According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, you should visit the ER if you have any of the following warning signs:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Uncontrolled bleeding
  • Sudden or severe pain
  • Coughing or vomiting blood
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Sudden dizziness, weakness, or changes in vision
  • Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea
  • Changes in mental status, such as confusion

If you have a chronic condition, discuss in advance with your primary care doctor under what circumstances you should go to the ER.

Urgent care center
When to go:
Urgent care facilities are for non-life-threatening conditions that need attention right away. These include minor traumas: cuts, sprains, eye injuries, flu, fever, insect bites and simple fractures. Patients are usually seen on a walk-in basis and many centers have extended hours. By administering an EKG or adjusting your diabetes medication, urgent care centers can even help manage a chronic health condition after normal business hours. Typically these centers won’t refill maintenance medicines.

Most urgent care centers have computerized radiology equipment and the ability to do lab work such as a complete blood count (CBC) test or electrolyte test. They can also run diagnostic tests for conditions such as mono, strep, pregnancy, flu and viruses.

These care centers are staffed with at least one board certified physician. They often use other trained medical staff, such as nurse practitioners, who are certified to treat certain ailments, and physician assistants, who generally work in tandem with an MD.

The wait to be seen is, on average, significantly shorter. According to the Urgent Care Association of America, 57% of patients wait 15 minutes or less to be seen and about 80% of all visits are 60 minutes or less.

A great resource available to state employees to help you decide which option is best for you is the 24/7 Nurse Line (1-888-279-5549). NurseLine provides anytime, toll-free access to nurses for answers to general health questions and guidance with health concerns. The nurse can help you understand your symptoms or explain medical treatments.  Every caller receives credible, reliable information from a registered nurse.  The Nurse Line number is located on the back of your Anthem ID card.

IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY, IMMEDIATELY CALL 911 OR A HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONAL OR GO TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM. NurseLine is available 24/7 at 888-279-5449. This information is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. While generally accurate, these statements may not be current or complete and may not apply to your specific medical or financial situation. Never disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking it, because of something you read here.