Urgent care centers can help you avoid the ER -- and high bills

Justin Stoltzfus

It's Friday night, and you have an ear infection. You can't get an appointment with your doctor until Monday -- and a trip to the emergency room would involve a long wait and a high co-pay. Fortunately, urgent care centers offer an affordable in-between option for those who need immediate care, but not necessarily emergency care.

Urgent care centers are specialized facilities, usually staffed by physicians and nurse practitioners. They often open are weekends and evenings. The patient does not need to make an appointment. Instead, visitors are helped on a first-come, first-served basis.

Unlike hospital ERs, urgent care centers don't have the overhead costs associated with treating severe conditions and employing a slew of specialists. So they can treat minor conditions for lower fees. For example, according to Aetna, treating an ear infection in the ER could run up costs of more than $500, while treating that same infection at an urgent care center or walk-in clinic would cost about $60. In addition to saving your health insurance company money, you'll likely save money as well when it comes to co-pays. Insurance companies often charge ER co-pays that are more than twice as high as those for urgent care.

There are about 8,000 urgent care centers in the United States, according to the Urgent Care Association of America (UCAOA). Most are open seven days a week and have extended hours, opening before 8 a.m. and closing after 7 p.m. Each center sees an average of about 300 patients per week, and 100 million Americans are served by urgent care centers each year. That's a lot of walk-ins -- but, according to UCAOA, the majority of these patients wait only 15 to 45 minutes to see a health care provider.

Although urgent care can help save money, some conditions still warrant a trip to the ER. According to the National Association for Ambulatory Care (NAFAC), you should go to the ER for conditions like:

  • Strokes.
  • Heart attacks.
  • Head injuries.
  • Major bleeding.
  • Loss of consciousness or sudden blurred vision.
  • Chest pain.
  • Difficulty breathing.

Urgent care centers will route any patients with severe conditions directly to the ER.

If, however, you have one of the following conditions, you may want to consider urgent care and leave space in the ER for those who need it, according to NAFAC:

  • Broken bones.
  • Viral or flu-like symptoms if respiratory restrictions are minor.
  • Rashes.
  • Minor burns.
  • Mild respiratory problems.
  • Animal bites.
  • Ear infections.
  • Minor asthma.
  • Sprains.
  • Sore throat.

By using an urgent care center whenever possible, you can limit your annual out-of-pocket health care costs, regardless of what kind of health insurance coverage you have.