Urgent Care Vs. the ER: Which One Should I Go to?
When Should I Go to Urgent Care Versus the ER?
As a rule of thumb, for non-life threatening medical conditions, going to urgent care is a cheaper and faster option than going to the ER. Urgent care facilities generally operate on a first-come, first-serve basis; emergency rooms, however, prioritize seeing patients based on the severity of their conditions. For example, life-threatening injury, chest pain, shortness of breath, and severe abdominal pain are top priorities at emergency rooms.
If you believe your medical condition is acute and life-threatening, you should go to the emergency room and will likely be seen relatively quickly there. If you only have an acute, non-life-threatening condition such as a sore throat, then you may save a lot of time and money — and leave room at the ER for people with more serious conditions — by going to urgent care.
If you need urgent care after hours, you can usually find a nearby facility that’s open until at least 7:00 p.m., if not 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. If you need urgent care in the middle of the night and it can’t wait until morning, then your best option might be the ER, which is almost always open 24/7. Alternatively, if you don’t think your situation warrants a trip to the ER but you do want to speak to a doctor right away, you can call a doctor in minutes through SAMI-Aid’s telemedicine feature, any time 24/7.
Are There Any Non-Emergency Alternatives to Urgent Care?
The short answer is yes. Make sure that you’re aware of all the options that are out there. Urgent care, retail clinics, community health clinics, and primary care providers are all far less expensive than the emergency room. A 2010 RAND study found that up to 27% of ER patients could have gotten the treatment they needed elsewhere at a substantial savings.
Prices for services can vary widely even among neighboring urgent care facilities, and you could save hundreds by just going to the urgent care around the corner. There are also retail (“drug-store”) clinics and community health clinics which offer limited services but function like urgent care facilities. Some urgent care chains operate both stand-alone and in-store clinics, and the starting prices at in-store clinics can be as much as 50% lower than the prices at stand-alone clinics. One particular Bay Area urgent care chain operates locations inside of Safeway, and basic consultations start at $100 inside of Safeway, but start at $200 at the same company's stand-alone facilities.
We suggest doing a little research when you’re not sick, to create a list of your preferred urgent care facilities and alternatives, so that you’ll be prepared in the event you get sick or injured. SAMI-Aid can help you compile your custom list, and even compare baseline prices at urgent care and retail clinics near you.
Will an Urgent Care Facility Bill Me in Advance or Afterwards?
As a general rule, this depends on whether or not you have insurance. If you don’t have insurance, you’ll likely get charged a flat fee up front for a basic office visit. Then, after your visit, the facility will charge you for any remaining balance beyond their initial fee. A common practice is to offer “self-pay” patients a discount for paying this entire bill in cash — either immediately, or within 30 days of the visit. If you’re concerned about paying up-front, you may want to call the facility in advance to find out their policy.
If you do have insurance, you likely won’t get any bill until after your visit, because the facility needs time to bill your insurance and determine the amounts you owe after it’s all been settled.
How Much Does an Urgent Care Visit Usually Cost?
Among 130 urgent care locations in the Bay Area, the average cash price for a basic consultation is $158, with $100 — $200 being the typical range, $75 being the least expensive, and $300 the most expensive. Emergency room facility fees average $576 for a visit dealing with problems of moderate severity and $810 for a visit dealing with severe problems. Additional fees for services are often added on top of the facility fees, bringing the costs easily into the range of thousands of dollars. According to a Health Care Cost Institute report, hospitals are increasingly billing patients using incorrect billing codes for more expensive services than those actually rendered, so that they can charge patients more money. Hospitals are also notorious for adding extravagant charges even for small additional services.
While prescriptions, vaccines, and other services may still add additional fees to your urgent care bill, the fees will likely be more manageable and the bill simpler than what you’d get from the emergency room.
To explore your urgent care options and compare prices near you, try SAMI-Aid’s Price Search tool. If you have a moderately urgent issue that you think could be treated at home, or if you’re going to urgent care simply to avoid waiting for a primary care appointment, try calling a doctor through SAMI-Aid instead. You can get nearly instant medical advice and decide from there whether you need to visit an urgent care facility in person.