When something out-of-the-ordinary happens, many of us typically have a backup plan in place. Flat tire? Call roadside assistance. Issue with a work computer? Contact the IT department. Cable crashed? Reach out to a service provider. However, when we get sick, although there are many different resources at our disposal, it seems there is never a clear, straight-forward plan to follow each time.
Should I go to my primary care provider? What about the new free-standing emergency department (ED) that just opened? Or, should I visit the urgent care in the neighborhood strip mall? What about the hospital ED?
If you have ever caught yourself asking any one of these questions, you aren’t alone. The majority of patients are often caught in the middle when deciding where they should seek treatment. Not only are they unsure where to go, but they may also feel stressed about making the final selection because they know all too well how one poor decision could result in a large, out-of-pocket bill and, possibly, an extra visit to the hospital.
Understanding the Differences
Although it may seem remedial, there are clear indications on where to be treated given the severity of your illness. Here are a few key differences in treatment of care that you should take into consideration when choosing where to go:
- Primary Care Office
The primary care office has your point-of-contact physician or primary care physician (PCP) available, your medical “home” and main long-term healthcare provider. Visits with the PCP are mostly for your non-emergency medical needs and questions. Typically, when visiting your primary care office, you are seeking a routine checkup, health tune-up or preventive care such as immunizations. Most patients have scheduled routine appointments to visit their primary care office, and many visit the same physician almost every time.
Due to the personal nature of the relationship between PCP and patient, most individuals have a difficult time finding the correct physician to fit their specific needs. When searching for the right fit, keep in mind what offices take your health insurance, and be open to personal referrals or referrals from other physicians. These practices will typically narrow down your search and help you find your right medical home.
- Urgent Care
An urgent care is a walk-in medical center that provides treatment for illness, injuries, wellness exams and employer health services. Most commonly, urgent care centers are used to treat non-emergency illnesses that may still require somewhat urgent medical attention. For example, if you are experiencing a bacterial cold or flu that requires antibiotic treatment, you can visit your nearby urgent care for immediate medical attention without a prior appointment. The physicians, physician assistants or nurse practitioners on staff can prescribe you real-time medications to help fight your illness right away.
Generally, a visit to urgent care is far less expensive than a visit to the emergency room and you have a higher likelihood of being treated more quickly here. However, if you are experiencing a heightened, more severe illness, you should call ahead to make sure you shouldn’t be stopping by the emergency department instead.
- Emergency Department
If you are experiencing a severe illness or injury that requires immediate attention, your destination of choice should be the emergency department (ED). The ED, also known as the emergency room (ER), emergency ward or accident and emergency department, is a medical treatment facility specializing in emergency medical care for patients without an appointment and is attached to a hospital. A few of the most common reasons for an ED visit include severe chest pain, fractures/sprains and motor vehicle accidents. Most patients go to the ED when they need to be attended to immediately and are in a dire situation.
However, some patients have a difficult time differentiating their illness as emergency or non-emergency and end up paying for their miscalculation. As a matter of fact, most studies find that at least 30% of all ED visits in the US are non-urgent and the patient could have been treated elsewhere. If you are unsure where to go, call the ED itself or your PCP’s office for advisement on the best step to take.
- Freestanding Emergency Department
In many states, free-standing emergency departments (FSED) are all the rage. According to American College of Emergency Physicians, an FSED is a facility that is structurally separated and distinct from a hospital and provides emergency care. There are two different types of FSEDs: a hospital outpatient department that is off-site hospital-based or a satellite emergency department and an independent freestanding emergency center. Due to the ever-changing regulatory and healthcare environment, FSEDs are rapidly increasing around the country. FSEDs are most commonly placed in more desolate or rural areas where there isn’t an accessible hospital nearby, and these facilities are staffed with the appropriate amount of qualified emergency physicians and nursing personnel. Advocates of FSEDs argue that these facilities expand access to quick, high quality and conveniently-located emergency care. If you are experiencing any emergency symptoms and aren’t near a hospital, your best bet is a visit to your closest FSED for immediate care.
Even though being burdened with an abrupt illness can be a scary situation, it is imperative to properly educate yourself on where you should seek care. Without a firm foundation and understanding of the appropriate care facilities for a given condition, one misjudgment regarding the severity of your illness could end up costing you and your insurance company hundreds to thousands of dollars.