Visit an emergency room these days and you’ll encounter the usual broken bones or more traumatic injuries. Chances are, you’ll also find folks who are there for what can be treated with over-the-counter medicine by visiting their primary care physician or an urgent care center, not the ER. So, how should patients know where to go?

Jonathan Walker, president and chief financial officer for MedExpress, addressed the issue via e-mail.

Q: Are people who are ill better off going to an urgent care center or to an emergency room?

A: It’s about understanding how to choose the right care at the right time. This understanding can help patients manage their health care costs while also receiving the most appropriate level of care. Most people are aware that life-threatening conditions such as major head injuries, severe burns, suspected poisoning, paralysis or chest pains are health conditions that should be treated immediately at the ER. However, it becomes less clear when dealing with broken bones, sprains, minor injuries and everyday illnesses such as colds and flu. For non-life-threatening health issues such as fevers, flu, earaches, pink eye, urinary tract infections and colds, patients can be treated at a walk-in urgent care center, such as MedExpress, which can perform X-rays, IVs, minor surgery, stitches and provide treatment for broken bones and sprains.

Q: When should people go to an ER?

A: Urgent care is a great choice for patients of all ages for non-emergent, non-life-threatening, episodic needs. Truly emergent conditions should certainly be seen in the ER. Ongoing, chronic conditions such as diabetes, COPD, hypertension or asthma are most appropriately treated by a primary care physician or a specialist.

Q: Why is this important from a health care industry perspective?

A: Urgent care centers can care for non-emergent patients who may not need the level of intensive care that the ER provides. This allows the ER to focus on the most critical needs and helps prevent overcrowding. In terms of the health care industry, it’s important to know that each of us — hospitals, PCPs, specialists and urgent cares — has an important role to play.

Q: Do premiums increase for patients if they use more costly services like an ER compared to a doctor’s office visit?

A: From a macro-level, regular use of more expensive health care options for conditions or ailments that don’t require intensive care can increase overall health system costs. As an industry, health care costs continue to be a challenge.

Q: How do the costs compare going to an ER or to an urgent care center?

A: According to a study from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (2013) and the Urgent Care Association of America Benchmarking Survey (2011), the average emergency room cost is approximately $1,400, and the average urgent care cost is approximately $155.

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