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Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room: Help Your Patients Understand the Difference


By Patricia Chaney October 22, 2015 Posted in: Patient Care , Article

When someone experiences a sudden illness or injury, they know the emergency department will treat them at any hour. What some of your patients may not realize, however, is that there may be other avenues for quick care that can cost them significantly less than a trip to the ED. Urgent-care centers and retail clinics are popping up across the country, but many people can benefit from some guidance on understanding when to use these locations.

Help Your Patients Know Where to Go

Depending on your relationship with your patients and their individual health situations, you can present the information in different ways. A one-page handout that lists what can be treated at an urgent-care center and when to go to the ED may be helpful for some patients, such as busy parents who could benefit from knowing where to take their kids outside office hours. The National Institutes of Health offers simple information you can share with patients. You should also add the information to your practice's website or blog and promote that content during visits or scheduling.

How you approach the subject and the information you relay will vary depending on the patient you're seeing. It may help to directly educate patients receiving Medicaid about options other than the ED, because one study found that adults covered by Medicaid use the emergency room 40 percent more than people who do not have insurance. This was based on Oregon's Medicaid expansion program. As more people received Medicaid, the state saw an upswing in ED usage.

Regardless of how or when you share information about appropriate settings to seek care, be sure to include a few key points:

  • When to seek urgent care vs. emergency room care (make sure patients have a list of what constitutes a true emergency).
  • What conditions retail clinics see.
  • What conditions urgent-care centers commonly see.
  • Shorter wait times at urgent-care centers compared to the ED.
  • The importance of going to the right place; visiting urgent care first will not mean faster service in the ED.

Patients are becoming more responsible for their care and want to be more involved, but they often need to realize how much they don't know. Share with your patients what they need to learn for themselves:

  • Understand their deductible and co-insurance.
  • Know what their co-pay is for a physician visit, urgent-care visit, and emergency-room visit.
  • Learn which clinics and urgent-care centers are nearby and what services they have (e.g., full lab, X-ray, etc.).
  • Find out the hours for nearby urgent-care centers.

With significantly lower overhead and lower reimbursement, it seems payers will be pushing patients more toward urgent care and retail clinics. So far, these options show promise in helping reduce the burden on EDs -- or at least making patients' lives easier. Ensuring your patients know where to go and when helps them save time and money.

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