ER, urgent care or virtual visit? What to consider to help you save on costs

You slipped on the stairs and feel your ankle throbbing. Or your child spikes a high fever in the middle of the night. You call your primary care doctor first, but you can't get a same-day appointment. So do you go to the emergency room (ER) or urgent care? Or would a virtual visit work best?

If it’s not actually an emergency situation, rushing to the ER can cost two to three times more than care in a provider’s office. In addition, seeking care in the ER may mean longer wait times and an increased exposure to germs, plus potentially unnecessary tests or treatments. Using the ER for all your health care needs may also mean you’re missing an opportunity to create a long-term relationship with a primary care provider who can address preventive needs before more serious issues arise.

That’s why understanding the most appropriate care setting is an important step to help you receive the simplest experience for your situation.

infographic comparing the costs and appropriate symptoms for utilizing the emergency room, urgent care center or a virtual visit. See article for more information.

Here’s what to consider when deciding where to go for care:

Urgent care center

Urgent care centers are not for emergencies but can help you when you need care quickly. If you can’t get in with your primary care physician, this may be another option. Remember, it’s first-come, first-served. You may consider urgent care if you have symptoms like the following:

  • Fever without a rash
  • Moderate flu-like symptoms
  • Sprains and strains
  • Small cuts that may require stiches

The average cost for an urgent care visit* is $185.

Emergency room

The hospital emergency room provides medical care for life-threatening injuries or illness. While some people may be tempted to utilize ER services because it’s open 24/7, the wait time is typically two hours on average, and can vary greatly based on time of day and location. Patients with life-threatening emergencies or critical conditions will be treated first so if you’re experiencing a minor ailment, it may not be the best place to seek care. Some of the symptoms that require an emergency room visit include, but are not limited to:

  • Chest pain
  • Numbness
  • Slurred speech
  • Fainting
  • Serious burns
  • Concussion
  • Broken bones and dislocated joints
  • Fever with a rash
  • Seizures

The average cost for an emergency room visit* is $2,600.

Have you considered a virtual visit?

If you are faced with a non-emergency health condition – like a migraine, possible COVID-19, sore throat or stomachache – but your doctor’s office is closed, you may consider a virtual visit. This allows you to virtually chat face-to-face with a doctor, day or night, and may save you up to $1,500 when compared to a visit to the ER**.

The average cost for a virtual visit is less than $50.*

Still not sure?

UnitedHealthcare plan members can also compare quick care options with UnitedHealthcare’s online resource, and get more information to help with COVID-19 concerns. If you or a loved one are experiencing what you feel to be life-threatening symptoms other than those listed, go to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

* Information about treatment costs are estimates and reflect the average costs of guidance and care delivered through UnitedHealthcare owned and contracted service providers to members of UnitedHealthcare health plans. Costs for specific guidance and treatments may be higher or lower than the costs represented here. Emergency room cost estimates include facility charge and initial physician consultation.

**Check your official health plan documents to see what services and providers are covered by your health plan. Virtual visits are not an insurance product, health care provider or a health plan. Unless otherwise required, benefits are available only when services are delivered through a Designated Virtual Network Provider. Virtual visits are not intended to address emergency or life-threatening medical conditions and should not be used in those circumstances. Services may not be available at all times or in all locations.