If you start having chest pains or receive a head injury, you probably realize you should go to the emergency room (ER) right away. But for medical issues that are urgent but not an emergency - such as a sinus infection or an ankle injury - many people aren't sure whether they should go to the emergency room, a walk-in care center or their primary care physician (PCP).
One way to make the right choice is to think of the "three Cs": condition, convenience, and cost.
The seriousness of your condition is the most important concern. If you experience a life-threatening illness or serious injury, seek care at the ER immediately. Illnesses and injuries that require an ER visit include head injuries, coughing up or vomiting blood, severe burns, paralysis and chest pains.
Less urgent health issues such as a fever, flu, earache, pink eye, urinary tract infection and cold can be treated either at a walk-in care center or your doctor's office. Most walk-in care centers can also perform X-rays, electrocardiogram tests, blood tests, minor surgery, stitches, and treatment for broken bones and sprains.
The second factor to consider is convenience. PCPs often have limited office hours and require an appointment. But for some medical conditions, waiting for an appointment may be difficult. For example, if you wake up with a urinary tract infection on Saturday morning, it may be very uncomfortable to wait until Monday for a doctor's appointment.
Walk-in care centers are typically open seven days a week and don't require an appointment. Emergency rooms are open 24/7, but often have long wait times for non-emergency care.
Third, consider the cost. Under most health benefit plans, patients pay a low or no co-pay to visit their doctor. A visit to a walk-in care center typically has a higher co-pay but costs less than the ER. In addition, tests and treatments performed at the ER are usually more expensive than if they were performed at an outpatient center.
According to UnitedHealthcare data, in Florida, the average cost for a non-emergency ER visit is $1,500 to $2,000, compared to $150 to $200 on average for a visit to an urgent care center. The most important factor in choosing the right care setting is that you get the care you need. Choosing the right place for you - depending on your condition, convenience and cost - can make a big difference and save you money.
About the Authors
Dr. Mayrene Hernandez, Medical Director, United Healthcare of South Florida
Dr. Chad Masters, Regional Medical Director for Florida, MedExpress