Why pick urgent care center over emergency room?

Options could save you money, get the care you need

By Melanie Lawson - The Morning Show anchor

ST AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Urgent care centers are open on weekends, late at night and early in the morning.  They provide very convenient care for urgent issues.  So when should you use them rather than go to an emergency room?

A recent national study examined the average cost of an emergency room visit.  It found bills sent out for sprained ankles ranged from $4 to $2,400. Overall the prices were extremely high and they found the average ER visit now costs 40 percent more than a month's rent. 

So why spend the cash when there's a better option?

You won't get to ride in the ambulance, but you also won't get the bill.  Emergency rooms have their place, but more often than not, that place is unnecessarily used.

"We're running into a problem with the over-utilization of the emergency room for things that are not emergency," says Dr. Dudley Baringer

Baringer of Healing Arts Urgent Care in St. Johns County opened his practice right next to Flagler hospital to treat that overflow.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 130 million people visited emergency rooms last year and only 13 percent were admitted into the hospital.

"Most of the things we can do without going into that extra time and expense," says Baringer

One example is when his physician assistant came in with a deep laceration.

"I got a little too sloppy with my chainsaw. I took my finger off the trigger but it was still spinning, so I later looked down on my knee and I had sustained a fairly large laceration," says Randy Heath.

Most people would have headed to the ER but Heath called Baringer.

"I think he put about 15 stitches on the inside and 30 on the outside and we were good to go," says Heath.

He also saved a lot of money.

"We're probably on average less than a fifth of what the charges are for the same thing at the ER," says Heath.

UF Health emergency room physician Petra Duran says the key is knowing the difference between emergency care and urgent care.

"In the emergency room we have a triage system which means the people who are the sickest they get cared for first they get first priority.  It's much like if you were having a stroke or a family member was having a stroke, you want them to be cared for right away," says Duran.

So in the ER while a laceration, sprain or strain is urgent it's always dealt with after true emergencies.  Most urgent care centers can do x-rays, stabilize an injury or wound, and help you get an appointment with a specialist at a fraction of the cost.

Florida Law requires urgent care centers post their pricing information. If you don't have insurance, you know exactly what you're going to pay, for what services, as opposed to the emergency room that doesn't offer that information up front.

"We do not post our prices because our job is to treat everyone regardless of their need when they come to the emergency center, and that's what we do," says Baptist Health's ER Director Darin Roark

At the ER they're prepared to check everything.  They can start an IV, do blood work, X-rays, a CT scan.  Financially that adds up and might not be necessary.  But there are times when you shouldn't think but run to the ER fast.

"Any type of chest pain that is nagging or creates a pressure in your chest, the worst headache you've ever had in your life, a stroke is when you experience any signs of weakness or if you have slurred speech, or if you try to move a body part and it just doesn't respond correctly, " says Roark.

Also keep in mind you can't plan emergencies so it's important to plan ahead.  Urgent care centers vary in price and expertise.  It's advised to do your research before hand.

"Because in an emergency, when you're frantic and the pressure rises and the stress level goes up, it's really challenging to make that right decision. So it's always good to have a plan," says Roark.

For many people urgent care centers are all about location and convenience.  Roark says call the ones nearby and see what it's capable of doing and ask for prices.

Copyright 2014 by News4Jax.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.