These days, there are many options for getting care, whether you’re dealing with a nasty cold, a sprained ankle or a mental health problem. Calling your primary care doctor is always a good first instinct. They know you and your medical history best.
But what if you’re not feeling well after hours, or you can’t get an appointment right away? That’s when options such as telehealth, urgent care and the emergency room come into play.
Do you know how to choose the place that’s the right fit for the care you need? Take the quiz below to find out.
Not every illness or injury warrants a trip to the emergency room (ER). ERs are an essential medical facility for health care that saves lives. But it’s recommended that you only visit there when you need life-saving treatment.
“Emergency room visits should really be reserved for...emergencies,” says Noor Ali, M.D., a health care adviser in Tampa, Florida. That means you are experiencing a serious health problem, such as:
If your situation isn’t life-threatening, try your primary care doctor or an urgent care center first. Urgent care centers are stand-alone clinics that are equipped to handle urgent but non-life-threatening medical problems.
You’ll save money at an urgent care center compared with an ER, and you’ll likely have a shorter wait time. Plus, “it helps the individuals at the ER who are facing a true life and death situation, so they can be treated first,” says Dr. Ali.
Telehealth appointments don’t always have to be done over video chat on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Telehealth, sometimes called telemedicine, allows you to receive health care via either a video call, telephone call or instant messaging. You can also do a call with a provider over either a landline or basic cellphone. A home computer or smartphone is not required.
What you will need is privacy. Your health care provider will call you from a private setting such as their office or an empty appointment room, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. You’ll want to find a private space where you feel safe to openly discuss your health concerns.
Private locations for your appointment include:
If you can’t find a place where other people won’t hear what you are saying, let your provider know. You may be able to email, chat or text through your provider’s patient portal instead. That’s a secure, password-protected messaging or email system accessed through your provider’s website. Your provider can also help you reschedule for a time when you can be alone or suggest a private location for the visit.
A) Chest pain
B) Urinary tract infection (UTI)
C) Sore throat
D) Heavy bleeding
E) All of the above
Answers: B and C
Urgent care centers are designed to handle illnesses and injuries that are not life-threatening but can’t necessarily wait for an appointment with your primary care doctor.
“These medical clinics are designed to treat most common urgent issues that people traditionally went to the ER for,” says Dr. Ali. Many are open 24 hours a day and don’t require an appointment.
In addition to UTIs or sore throats, urgent care centers are equipped to handle things like:
Chest pain and heavy bleeding can be life-threatening emergencies, so it’s best to call 911 or head to the ER in those cases.
A) Emergency room
B) Urgent care
C) Primary care provider
D) Nowhere yet. I will wait to see if the pain gets worse.
If you know you have a broken bone — particularly if it has pushed through the skin — the ER is the way to go. But if you aren’t sure if your bone is broken, you’re better off going to an urgent care center to have it looked at first.
Urgent care providers can assess your injury and treat it there in many cases. They can help you set up a follow-up appointment with an orthopedist if needed. (That’s a type of doctor that treats broken bones.) Or they can make arrangements to get you to an ER if the injury is more serious.
If you answered D, you won’t get any bonus health points for being brave. If you think you may have an injury, it’s best to have it checked out right away.
A) Your primary care doctor
B) Urgent care
C) Emergency room
D) None of the above
A report from UnitedHealth Group found that the average cost of a trip to the ER for a treatable condition is more than $2,000. That’s a lot more than you might pay for a visit to your primary care doctor or an urgent care visit.
“Emergency rooms are significantly more expensive because they are staffed and equipped for severe conditions,” says Bruce Y. Lee, M.D., M.B.A., professor of health policy and management at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.
If you don’t need that level of specialized care, you may save money by going to one of the other options.
Behavioral health services, such as therapy and counseling, are widely available through telehealth these days. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, virtual visits for mental health are a convenient way to access the following:
Telehealth is a great option if there aren’t many mental health care providers near you. Or perhaps you may just feel more at ease talking to someone from the comfort of your own home. Of course, if you prefer to talk to someone in person, that’s an option too.
Check your health plan details to learn more about where you can get care and what your virtual care options are. Or call a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730.
Many plans also offer access to 24/7 nurse hotlines and other telehealth services. These services can be convenient and affordable, and a great first step if you’re not sure where to go to get care.
Whatever the case may be, it’s important to get the care you need, when you need it.
For informational purposes only. This information is compiled by UnitedHealthcare and does not diagnose problems or recommend specific treatment. Services and medical technologies referenced herein may not be covered under your plan. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.
MedlinePlus. “When to use the emergency room — adult.” July 25, 2022. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000593.htm
UnitedHealth Group. “The High Cost of Avoidable Hospital Emergency Department Visits.” July 22, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.unitedhealthgroup.com/newsroom/posts/2019-07-22-high-cost-emergency-department-visits.html
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Telehealth and behavioral health.” May 4, 2023. Retrieved from https://telehealth.hhs.gov/patients/telehealth-and-behavioral-health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Telehealth and privacy for patients.” June 29, 2022. Retrieved from https://telehealth.hhs.gov/patients/telehealth-privacy-for-patients#privacy-during-your-appointment