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The ER: When it may be a wise choice — and when it may not be

Doctor reviewing chartSave time and money by knowing when to use the emergency room — and when not to

When you have a medical emergency, you need care quickly. The emergency room (ER) can be there to help — when you need it most.

But you should know this: Some pressing health matters and injuries can be treated outside the ER. Being smart about the care you choose may save you hassle, time and money.

What’s the difference?

The ER is for life-threatening or serious illnesses or injuries, such as chest pain, heavy bleeding or severe burns.

But what about a nagging cough, sprained ankle or new rash? Those are usually less urgent situations. For matters like these, here are three good reasons to consider another option — instead of the ER:

  1. You could wind up waiting at the ER — sometimes for hours. Emergency rooms aren’t first-come, first-served. The doctors and nurses treat the sickest patients first. And even after you’re seen, you may have to wait for test results or to be discharged officially.
  2. Your out-of-pocket costs may be much higher. Copayments and coinsurance are usually higher at the ER. And if you have a high-deductible plan, you may be responsible for the full amount of the visit.
  3. The ER isn’t always one stop. After your visit, you still may need to make an appointment with your doctor for follow-up tests and care.

Know your other options

If it’s not a true emergency, these options may be more convenient and affordable:

Call a nurse line. Many health plans offer a hotline you can call 24/7 to speak with a registered nurse. Among other things, a nurse can talk with you about what type of care might be right for your situation — and may help you find a lower-cost alternative to the ER.

Call your primary care doctor. If the office isn’t too busy, you might score a quick appointment. Or you may find out it’s OK to wait until your doctor can see you the next day.

Stop by a network walk-in clinic. Convenience care clinics and urgent care centers offer same-day treatment for minor illnesses and injuries. They can help with a wide range of problems — from fevers to sore throats to sinus troubles to minor cuts. And many stay open evenings and weekends — when your regular doctor may not be available.

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