One of the most painful things about using an emergency room (ER) may not be the condition that brought you there. It could be the time you spend waiting for care: an average of fo...
Is It an Emergency? When to Use the ER or an Alternative
One of the most painful things about using an emergency room (ER) may not be the condition that brought you there. It could be the time you spend waiting for care: an average of four to five hours according to Press Ganey Associates. Or it could be the cost: which averages $150 if you have insurance coverage and go to an in-network hospital — and many-times that if you’re using an out-of-network hospital or are uninsured.
But if you’re sick — and know you need attention within the next 24 hours — what else can you do?
When the ER is the Best Place
ERs are for treating life-threatening conditions that need immediate care. The American College of Emergency Medicine recommends you go to one when experiencing these conditions:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain or pressure
- Uncontrolled bleeding
- Coughing up or vomiting blood
- Sudden severe pain
- A drug overdose
- Major injuries such as broken bones
- Sudden facial drooping or weakness in an arm or leg
Know Your Alternatives
If what you’re suffering from is more like a sinus infection, a sprained ankle or a minor burn, then you can make another choice—that will likely lead to the right care in a shorter amount of time and at a lower cost. Here’s a good process to follow.
Call your primary care doctor. This is the best place to start. Your doctor knows you and your medical history. A visit to his or her office that day or the next — or a prescription to care for a recurring condition—may be what you really need.
Call a health care help line. These services are often offered by your health insurance company or local hospitals. They are staffed by nurses and other health care professionals. While these people can’t diagnose your condition, they can help you sort through the next best steps to take. This can be particularly helpful if it’s after hours and your doctor is unavailable.
Consider a retail health care center. You may find one in most drug store chains. The medical professional on hand is not likely to be a doctor, so this is a good choice when you’re dealing with these kinds of conditions: a minor allergic reaction, cough and/or sore throat, bumps/cuts/scrapes, rashes and minor burns, minor fevers and colds, ear or sinus pain, burning with urination, eye swelling/irritation/redness/pain, or need a vaccination (such as a flu shot).
Go to an urgent care center. These can offer prompt evaluation and treatment for a wide range of conditions. Most are open seven days a week, including holidays, and are staffed by physicians. And the waiting time usually is an hour or less. Some centers have x-rays and others don’t — so if you think you may need one, call first.
The most important thing is to get the right care for what ails you. Only then should you be concerned about the time and costs involved. But when it comes to health care, take the same approach you use to make smart decisions before purchasing any product or service—consider your options first and then choose.
A number of UnitedHealthcare programs include a 24-hour nurse line to help with these kinds of situations and questions. Please call 800-293-0105 to learn more