Urgent Care vs. ER

Knowing The Difference Can Save You Thousands

Picture this: You’ve fallen and sprained your ankle. You’re in a lot of pain and need medical attention quickly, so you go to the nearest emergency room (ER). You see the doctor, get an x-ray, your ankle is wrapped up, and you are sent home. A few weeks later, a bill arrives for upwards of $1,000.

It is a common scenario, because in an emergency situation it can be difficult to discern whether you really need to go to an ER, or if you can be taken care of at an urgent care center. As many individuals have learned the hard way, ERs are often neither the fastest nor most cost-effective choice for immediate care, costing hundreds, or thousands more than an urgent care visit.

Up to 80 percent of the time, ailments treated in the ER could have been treated at an urgent care facility. In order to choose wisely about when to seek care at the ER or at urgent care, it is important to understand the difference in services provided, and what classifies as a medical emergency.

The Urgency Room, which is operated by NextCare Holdings, Inc., the nation’s largest privately held provider of urgent care medicine, has offered a list of factors to consider when choosing between urgent care and the ER.

Urgent Care

  • Services offered:
General medicinal and injury care, such as an ankle sprain or the flu
Occupational medicine (pre-employment 
 screening, worker’s comp)
On-site diagnostic testing, including 
 vaccinations
Digital x-rays
Laboratory testing
EKG (electrocardiogram)
Spirometry (lung testing)
School and sports physicals
  • Key benefits:
Patients with non-life threatening issues will see a much shorter wait time at an urgent care center. ERs will typically treat the sickest patients first, regardless of when they arrive.
Many urgent care clinics provide an online check-in service, so patients can wait for their appointment in the comfort of their home or office.
Services offered are more affordable than in the ER.

Emergency Room:

  • Services offered:
Treatment of:
Life-threatening injuries and illness
Open fractures
Severe bleeding
Head injury or other major trauma
One-sided weakness or numbness
Loss of consciousness

One important difference to note between urgent care and emergency care is cost. Insurance co-pays will normally cover an entire urgent care visit. Uninsured or under-insured patients have the convenience of choosing between a few medical discount plans offered by The Urgency Room.

Statistics show that the average emergency room visit costs approximately $1,200, while the average urgent care visit costs approximately $125.

Due to the large price differences, and as a result of the Affordable Care Act, an increasing number of people are seeking more cost-effective options like urgent care, as opposed to going to the ER for non-life-threatening ailments.

People are getting more involved economically in the medical decisions they make. If you have coverage and a high-deductible plan, you really care about where you’re getting treatment because a lot of the medical bills can come out of your pocket. You can’t walk into an ER and get care for free, so more people are choosing to go to urgent care clinics where it’s a lower costing, convenient option for people with, or without, access to health care coverage.

Another noticeable trend in the delivery of emergency care is the development of freestanding emergency rooms (FERs). These look similar to urgent care centers in that they are usually in the same retail-facing suburban locations, such as strip malls. To add to the confusion, some FERs market themselves as both “emergency and urgent care,” making it incredibly difficult for consumers to tell the difference between the two.

For all practical purposes, and for the vast majority of patients, FERs are functioning as walk-in urgent care centers that charge higher rates. The result is a bad financial outcome for consumers and independent providers. While they may appear similar in appearance, FERs cost a great deal more than urgent care – typically equal to that of a typical ER visit because many of them are out-of-network for most insurance plans. These medical facilities– where simple procedures like stitches and ankle sprains can cost thousands – will typically inform patients that they will bill insurance, but they are still left with a very high payment due after the visit due to coverage limitations.

Since some patients are unaware they are entering an ER facility when they choose a FER for their medical care, The Urgency Room offers the following advice:

The most common way to tell if you are walking into a freestanding ER is if you see the word ‘Emergency’ anywhere inside or outside of the building. In most states, urgent care centers by law cannot use the word ‘emergency’ on any signage.

With the number of primary care physicians continuing to decline, and the cost for emergency room visits continuing to rise, patients are choosing urgent care for both their primary and urgent care needs.

The Urgency Room has five clinics in Kansas and Missouri, including one at McBaine Drive in Lee’s Summit. For more information, visit TheUrgencyRoom.com.