Is Urgent Care an Ideal Budget Option?

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If you’re like most Americans, health and medical care is one of your biggest expenses. On top of being responsible for paying health insurance premiums, you’ll be responsible for copays, the costs of prescription medication, and whatever your deductible is when you start tapping into your insurance benefits.

This can add up to thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars every year. And if you’re forced to go to the hospital for an injury or illness, you could end up spending tens of thousands of dollars in a single visit.

In some cases, it makes sense to go to urgent care, rather than the emergency room. But is this a good way to save money? And how can you tell when it’s appropriate to go to urgent care?

The Short Answer: Yes

If you’re looking for a short, easy answer, the answer is yes – you can save money by going to urgent care instead of an emergency room. Urgent care facilities function kind of like a stepping stone between your primary care physician and emergency room services. These facilities are equipped for health conditions and ailments that are urgent enough to warrant immediate attention, but that aren’t so severe they require an emergency room visit.

For a few important reasons, urgent care facilities are usually less expensive than emergency rooms. Depending on your insurance, your copay will probably be lower, and the total cost of your visit should also be lower.

What You Should Know About Urgent Care

However, there are several important things you need to understand about urgent care before tapping into one of these facilities.

  •       Urgent care centers are highly equipped. It’s tempting to think of an urgent care facility as a hospital with fewer capabilities, but this isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of what urgent care centers can provide. Most urgent care centers in the United States are highly equipped, full of professionally trained staff members, lab equipment, and space for patient treatment. You can get urgent treatment here for a wide variety of different injuries and health problems.
  •       Hours and services may be limited. That said, there may be certain services that are unavailable at the urgent care center near you. There’s no guarantee that an urgent care facility will have everything you need to correct the problem. Additionally, while emergency rooms are typically available 24/7, urgent care facilities operate with limited hours. They may or may not be open when you need them.
  •       Severe health problems are better suited for a hospital. Emergency rooms exist for a reason: to help people with medical issues that require immediate, intensive care. While urgent care facilities can help you with most things, there are some matters that are better served in an emergency room. If you’re experiencing severe chest pain, if you’re having difficulty breathing, or if you’ve suffered catastrophic injuries, for example, an emergency room is probably the better option.
  •       You’ll need to consider your insurance. When calculating costs, you need to think about your specific insurance policy. Most insurance companies want their patients to choose urgent care facilities over emergency rooms whenever possible, so everyone can save money, but it’s important to understand the details of your policy before moving forward with anything. Also, not all urgent care facilities are considered in network for all insurance policies.
  •       Every urgent care facility is different. Finally, keep in mind that different urgent care facilities operate in different ways. The facility near you is not guaranteed to have any specific services, hours, or people on staff. Make sure you do your research before moving forward.

Making the Decision

So how do you make this type of decision? When should you go to urgent care and when should you go to an emergency room?

  •       Understand your options before you need them. First, make sure you understand all your options before you actually need them. If you’re suffering from a health emergency, the last thing you want to do is start coming through your health insurance policy to figure out what you’re supposed to do. Research the emergency rooms and urgent care facilities in your area, as well as the details of your insurance policy while you’re healthy.
  •       Assess the urgency of the situation. How urgent is this medical/health issue? This can be a hard question to answer, especially if you don’t have any healthcare or medical experience of your own. But you can usually gauge urgency based on signs and symptoms; for example, if a person is not breathing or is unresponsive, you should call 911 right away. If a person has a moderately bad stomach ache, urgent care is probably more appropriate.
  •       Check hours and availability. Never assume that an urgent care facility is open; check hours and availability, as well as available resources before visiting.
  •       Consult with a professional (if possible). Many insurance companies now offer “nurse advice lines,” which you can call to consult with a professional before making any medical decisions. If you’re on the fence, consider calling one of these lines to see if urgent care or an emergency room is more appropriate here.

It’s sometimes hard to decide whether an urgent care facility or an emergency room is a better option for your specific situation. But in most cases that aren’t immediately life threatening, urgent care is a more affordable choice. Consider all your options seriously before making any final decisions.