If you’re sick with the flu or you break your arm, your first instinct might be to head to the emergency room. However, according to health insurer Cigna, the average ER bill is a staggering $2,259. Visiting a local urgent care center, where the average cost is just $176, might make more sense.
Here are four questions you should ask yourself to decide which immediate medical option is right for you.
- What time is it?
If you are hurt or sick outside of your doctor’s normal business hours, both urgent care centers and the ER are useful options. Although urgent care facilities tend to have longer hours than your normal doctor, they are not usually available around the clock. If you are injured late at night or very early in the morning, your only option may be the ER.
- Is your condition life threatening?
If you’re sick or have an infection and your doctor is unavailable, you may think the ER is your best bet. However, some insurance companies don’t cover ER visits for non-life-threatening emergencies. If you’re not facing a true medical emergency, an urgent care facility is a cheaper and safer option.
- How serious is the problem?
Although urgent care facilities are usually cheaper and more convenient than the ER, they have limitations. They usually have X-ray equipment, EKGs, and lab testing, but lack the facilities needed for more complex illnesses or problems. Urgent care facilities really are best for short-term illnesses or injuries. If you have a more severe injury or illness – such as chest pain – an urgent care facility might not be able to give you the care you need. Instead, you may need the tests, expertise and care that only a hospital can provide.
- Can you pay today?
Many doctors working in emergency rooms are independent contractors. That’s important to know, because it means they may not operate within your insurance provider’s network and will cost hundreds or thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket payment. However, most ERs will bill you later or offer a payment plan. Conversely, most urgent care facilities require payment in full before you leave and don’t offer payment plans. However, they cost much less and bill nearly all expenses to insurance.
Because you never know when a medical emergency will strike, it’s important to set up a savings account so you at least can offer partial payment if you find yourself in the ER. Even just $20 a month, auto transferred into savings so you don’t even miss it, can get you started on the right path.