Your first patient choice consideration is to assess the urgency of treatment need, and to do so, we're going to break down urgency into three general catagories. Let's jump right in.
Is your medical need an emergency? Have you sustained a very serious or life-threatening injury, or do you believe that you may be suffering from an illness or condition that would require the resources and breadth of expertise that a hospital can provide? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, there are no more choices to be made. Call 9-1-1 immediately and go to the nearest emergency room. ER's are the only providers equipped to handle very serious and life-threatening treatment needs, and they can admit you to the hospital after their initial treatment if necessary. We'll talk later about how you can reduce ER and hospital costs depending on your health insurance situation, but in true emergencies, cost should be the last thing on your mind. Get to the nearest emergency room as soon as possible.
For our purposes, a non-emergency will be defined as an injury or illness that you do not believe to be very serious or life-threatening. That is a broad definition, and each individual's opinion of what constitutes "very serious" is probably different. That's okay; the whole point is to make the best decision for you, and hopefully the information that follows will help in the decision-making process.
Some medical needs are not severe enough to warrant an ER visit but probably do require immediate attention, such as minor cuts that may require stitches or a suspected simple bone fracture. In these cases, your options are usually limited to providers that accept walk-ins without a prior appointment. In general, these providers are emergency rooms, urgent care centers, and retail clinics. Thus, emergency rooms are an option for non-emergencies that require immediate care, but we would not recommend them due to the high cost and the fact that you'll probably wait awhile if your condition is not high on their priority list. An urgent care center can handle most non-emergencies that require immediate care, and can do so relatively quickly and at a much lower cost. Retail clinics offer the the most limited range of services of the walk-in options but are usually the most affordable and can handle things like vaccinations, physicals, and treatment for common colds and other minor illnesses and injuries. Primary care providers and specialists generally frown upon walk-ins, but some might offer same-day appointments if you'd like to call and ask; just be aware that they may not be able to accommodate you.
The treatment needs that can fall into this category are extremely broad, and it would be impossible to discuss them all here. It may be that you have a newly onset condition that you don't believe to be serious but would like your PCP to check out within a week or so. Perhaps you don't have a PCP and are looking for the best place to get your sore throat examined and obtain a prescription if necessary. Maybe you have a previously diagnosed and ongoing condition and are looking for a specialist to help manage it without having to go through your PCP. It could be that you're uninsured or underinsured and want to know what your care options are. Whatever the case may be, these non-emergencies that do not require immediate care offer the best opportunity to take your time and choose the best provider for you. Our first piece of advice would be to choose a primary care provider if you haven't already. Utilizing urgent care and retail centers for primary care services can be a good option in certain circumstances, but jumping around from place to place without a PCP leads to disjointed care and makes it difficult to track your health history. In general, establishing a relationship with a PCP and utilizing him or her as your first medical care option is a solid idea.
What we do not recommend is utilizing the emergency room for any non-emergencies that do not require immediate attention. This is bad on many levels including increasing costs unnecessarily and clogging up ER's with patients that don't need to be there. There are many better options for non-emergency medical services, and FQHC's are available to assist uninsured and underinsured populations obtain primary care services, so please do not utilize the ER unless you have a legitimate emergency.
In cases of very serious or life-threatening emergencies, call 9-1-1 immediately and go to the nearest emergency room. If a medical condition is not an emergency but requires immediate attention, your best bet is most likely an urgent care center, although other options are available. In cases where your medical need is not an emergency and does not require immediate attention, we recommend you utilize your primary care provider first and then assess the situation from there. We urge you not to utilize an emergency room in situations that are not emergencies and do not require immediate attention. This unnecessarily increases costs among other issues.
For the next patient choice consideration, visit What is the insurance and financial situation?
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