When Care Can't Wait
When to Visit an Immediate Care Center Instead of the Emergency Room
Illnesses and injuries often seem to pop up when you least expect them. When medical care is needed at night or over the weekend, patients are often unsure where to go for treatment. The first step is to determine if the medical issue can wait for a visit with the primary care doctor or if it is an acute issue requiring immediate attention. If the problem requires attention outside of your physician’s clinic hours, and depending on the symptoms, care is available at an immediate care center (ICC) or at an emergency room (ER) at a local hospital. Both the time and cost can vary drastically depending on where the medical care is provided, so it’s important to understand the difference between the two and the impact your choice may have on your wallet.
Your primary care provider is ideally the best, most cost-effective place to receive care. Your provider is familiar with your health history and has access to all your medical records, and knows you the best. Visits with your primary care physician are typically the most affordable option and usually patients are only responsible for their co-payment amount or a percentage of the office visit depending on the health insurance policy. If the issue is non-emergent and can be managed with over-the-counter medications, you may want to wait to schedule an appointment with your doctor during regular business hours. Examples of conditions include mild allergy, cold or urinary tract infection symptoms. Other acute issues may need to be addressed sooner including: cuts and burns, sprains and broken bones, high fevers, allergic reactions or severe abdominal pain. If you are experiencing an acute issue, you will need to determine whether to seek medical care at an ICC or ER. An ICC is appropriate for treatment of non-emergency issues while treatment in the ER should be limited to more emergent issues.
The CDC estimates that the number of Emergency Room visits exceeds 136 million per year in the United States. This number could be drastically reduced if patients sought care at an immediate care center for non-emergent health issues instead. In fact, a reported 65% of ER visits are not considered to be medical emergencies. In addition to tying up the staff and resources needed to treat medical emergencies, non-urgent ER visits are responsible for generating billions of dollars in health care expenses every year. In order to improve access to care and make after-hours care more affordable, immediate care centers were established and continue to become more common. Immediate care centers were designed specifically to bridge the gaps between routine care PCP offices provide and medical emergencies treated at ER’s.
In general, if a condition is non-life threatening but should be addressed that day, an ICC is appropriate. Examples of non-urgent medical care provided at an ICC include:
- Flu and cold symptoms including: fever, congestion, coughing
- Urinary tract infections
- Abdominal pain, vomiting or diarrhea
- Minor cuts or bites
- Sprains or broken bones
DMG’s ICC’s are staffed by emergency medicine physicians and offer diagnostic imaging tests like x-rays, lab services, and the additional resources on-hand to treat a majority of medical conditions. Immediate care centers typically do not require an appointment and treat patients on a first-come-first-serve basis.
If the issue is life-threatening or a medical emergency, a trip to the ER is necessary, as they are best equipped to handle these types of medical issues. Examples of a medical emergency are:
- Some types of chest pain
- Severe abdominal pain (making it difficult to talk or stand )
- Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath that is not responding to medications (you cannot talk or catch your breath)
- Paralysis or unconsciousness
- Immediate onset of speech difficulty, weakness of a limb or paralysis of a limb.
In addition to understanding which facility is appropriate for each level of care required, the cost of treatment varies drastically between an ICC and ER. When patients are seen at an immediate care center often the only cost associated is their co-payment amount or deductible, which on average ranges from $50 to $150 depending on their health insurance coverage. Emergency rooms on the other hand vary drastically depending on the level and type of treatment provided. A 2013 National Institute of Health study estimated the median costs of an ER visit to range between $1,200 and $2,150.
In general, ER visits cost about four times as much as an immediate care visit to treat the same issue. Length of the visit can also fluctuate between the two. On average, patients will spend less than 30 minutes from time of arrival to departure at an ICC where ER visits average 2 hours and 15 minutes. For patients experiencing serious but non-critical health issues, an immediate care clinic offers access to high-quality care quickly and more affordably than an ER.
DMG Immediate Care Centers offers patients a convenient alternative than the ER for conditions ranging from sprains and broken bones to allergies, cold or flu symptoms, earaches, sore throats, pink eye, UTI’s and strep throat. DMG triage nurses are also available to help determine severity of symptoms and ultimately where to seek care for a range of symptoms including chest pain, shortness of breath and other acute issues.
For hours and locations of a DMG ICC near you visit