Getting Immediate Medical Care Without a Trip to the ER

By Lisa Zamosky

Medical mishaps aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think about decorating for the holidays and putting that angel on top of the Christmas tree. Yet, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, during the months of November and December 2010, more than 13,000 people were treated in U.S. emergency departments for injuries involving holiday decorations.

Urgent vs. Emergent Care

Emergency departments (ED) are intended to be used in true emergencies – when your life or limb is in imminent danger. However, many people use the ED unnecessarily. In fact, a 2010 study by the Rand Corporation found that between nearly 14% and 27% of all emergency department visits could take place at an alternative medical site, such as urgent care settings, to potentially save $4.4 billion annually.

Urgent care centers are popping up around the country, and are often a better choice for most illnesses or injuries that need a doctor’s immediate attention.

I talked with Martin Rosen, cofounder of the healthcare advocacy organization, Health Advocate Inc., who offered three good reasons to consider an urgent care facility instead of the ED if you’re faced with a sudden medical need during the holidays.

1) You’re not dying: If your life isn’t in imminent danger, instead of driving to your local hospital’s ED, you’ll want to head instead to an urgent care facility.

Urgent care facilities are meant to fill the gap between the level of care you’ll receive at a doctor’s office and an emergency department. Infections, lacerations, or broken bones are good examples of ailments that do need treatment right away, but are more appropriately dealt with at an urgent care facility than the ED.

2) To Avoid Wasting Money: The cost difference between urgent care and the care you’ll receive at in emergency department of a hospital for the same diagnosis is dramatic, Rosen says. “You could be paying hundreds and even thousands of dollars more for an unnecessary ED visit,” he says.

In fact, it’s common for the ED to cost as much as six to ten times more for the same care you’ll receive at an urgent care facility.

3) To Avoid Wasting Time: “The emergency department sees the most serious cases first, so that sprained ankle could have you waiting for hours,” Rosen says. Yet, in an urgent care facility you won’t wait longer than an hour to see a doctor.

You can find an urgent care center near you on the Urgent Care Association of America’s website.

Have you used an urgent care center for an injury or illness that needed a doctor’s immediate attention? If so, what was your experience? Please share your thoughts.