Emergency Rooms vs. Urgent Care
While the American College of Emergency Physicians report that 92 percent of emergency visits are from 'very sick people who need care within 1 minute to 2 hours,' the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey estimates that one-third to one-half of all ER visits are for non-urgent care. In fact, the top three reasons for ER visits in 2007 were for superficial injuries and contusions, sprains and strains, and upper respiratory infections. (The CDC defines non-urgent as 'needing care in 2 to 24 hours.)
The main reason that so many emergency room visits are for non-urgent care is that hospital EDs (Emergency Departments) are required by federal law to provide care to all patients, regardless of their ability to pay. Since they cannot be turned away, patients without health insurance or the necessary funds to pay out-of-pocket costs, often utilize emergency rooms as their main health care provider. This puts ERs under tremendous strain, and limits their ability to move quickly attend to health emergencies.
Emergency room costs are difficult to quantify and are most often unknown to a patient when he or she walks, or is wheeled, in the door. Other than knowing the standard co-pay amount for those who have private medical insurance, which can be several hundred dollars, it is impossible to determine how much the final ER bill will be until it is received in the mail a few weeks after treatment.
Urgent care centers are freestanding, walk-in medical facilities that provide care on a no-appointment basis and are often open for extended hours, including nights and weekends. Sometimes referred to as a "doc in a box," urgent care centers are a cost-effective alternative to emergency rooms for the treatment of non-life-threatening medical situations. Some centers provide basic laboratory and x-ray services, and most can run diagnostic tests and dispense prescriptions.
These care centers have existed in the United States for more than 30 years, and today there are approximately 8,800 facilities nationwide. They accommodate an average of 342 patients per week.