Avoiding the ER
When should you skip the trip to the emergency room – and when must you go
You’ve got kids, so chances are you’ve spent a fraught hour or four (or more) waiting for on-the-spot care in an emergency room. But did you really have to be there?
According to a 2010 RAND Corporation study, about 17 percent of all visits to hospital emergency departments nationwide could potentially be treated at retail-based health clinics or urgent care centers. According to the same study, skipping the ER trip could save consumers an estimated $4.4 billion annually.
“When you’re home with a fever, a sore throat or an earache at 8pm on Friday, what do you do?” asks Richard Snyder, MD, chief medical officer of Independence Blue Cross (IBC) in Philadelphia. “Understanding what kind of care you need is important.”
When to go to the . . . emergency room
Parents should take kids to the ER for life-threatening, emergency situations, especially those involving profuse bleeding, unconsciousness and heart attack symptoms. Because the definition of “emergency” can be interpreted in many ways, “There’s a lot of common sense to this,” says Dr. Snyder. “With any injury or illness, if parents feel their child is in imminent danger they should go to the ER.”
“We always encourage parents to contact their primary care physician first,” says Nicholas Tsarouhas, MD, medical director of emergency transport at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “If they feel that waiting even five minutes for their doctor to call back is not prudent, they should call 911.”
“The best thing is always to talk with their primary care physician first. If a doctor says, ‘I can handle that, let’s make an appointment for tomorrow.’ Great,” says IBC president and CEO Daniel J. Hilferty. “When our members need access to good medical care but their family doctors aren’t available and they don’t want to go to busy, more costly emergency rooms, urgent care centers and retail health clinics provide safe, cost-effective care quickly and conveniently.”
When to go to an . . . urgent care center
Parents should go to these walk-in facilities, generally open 24/7 and staffed by board-certified doctors, for non-life-threatening illnesses or injuries that require immediate medical attention. If, say, your child needs stitches for a minor cut, an urgent care center would be a less expensive alternative to the ER.
Urgent care centers are a growing trend, with more than 8,700 now open across the country. Because there is a great variability between services offered — for example, some have X-ray capability and others don’t — Dr. Tsarouhas advises parents to research area urgent care centers before a visit is necessary. “You should never walk into an urgent care without a working knowledge of its capabilities and staff,” he says.
When to go to a . . . retail-based health clinic
Walk-in retail health clinics, generally staffed by nurses, are an option for minor, uncomplicated illnesses and injuries, as well as for flu shots and vaccinations. A health clinic would be appropriate for treating cold symptoms or a small bruise. Pharmacy-based examples include the CVS Minute Clinic and Walgreens’ Healthcare Clinic (formerly Take Care Clinic).
Difference in cost?
According to IBC, a visit to an emergency room for a sore throat could cost up to $750. A visit to an urgent care center or health clinic for the same cause ranges from $110 to $130.
MetroKids intern Emily DiCicco is a journalism major at Temple University.