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3 Alternatives to the ER When It’s Not a True Medical Emergency

When illness or injury strike, it can be scary. But rushing to the emergency room for non-life-threatening ailments can cost patients nearly 10 times more than visiting an urgent care center.


As many as 27 percent of emergency department visits in the United States could be managed in alternate facilities, according to a 2010 study that also showed that families could save $4.4 billion annually by choosing urgent care, the doctor’s office or a virtual environment instead of the ER when seeking care that is not truly a medical emergency.

Moreover, emergency rooms prioritize life-threatening emergencies, so with a non-emergency, you could get stuck waiting for a very long time.

When evaluating the best decision for you and your family, compare your options, including the following:

Virtual Visits

Connect with a doctor using your smartphone, tablet or computer for minor health care needs or symptoms. These require copayment and coinsurance, similar to a regular office visit.

Average cost per visit*: $40

May be appropriate for: colds, seasonal allergies, coughs, fever, pinkeye, diarrhea

Primary Care Doctor

A primary care doctor can help you manage your health and get all the preventative care you may need. Your doctor can also treat minor illnesses and injuries – and refer you to a specialist, if needed.

Average cost per visit*: $58

May be appropriate for: earaches, common infections, minor skin conditions

Urgent Care Center

Urgent care centers may help you when you need care quickly. But they’re not for emergencies. For life-threatening or serious problems, such as chest pain, go to the emergency room. Urgent care centers, on the other hand, are first-come, first-served. For minor problems, such as seasonal allergies, see your primary doctor.

Average cost per visit*: $124

May be appropriate for: burns, lacerations, sprains

Emergency Room

Emergency rooms help people with life-threatening or dangerous conditions first. Take action if a situation seems life-threatening. Head to your your nearest emergency room or call 911 right away.

Average cost per visit*: $1,327

May be appropriate for: difficulty breathing, chest pain, sudden trouble speaking, sudden weakness, sudden changes in vision, broken bones

*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.

When in Doubt, Who Should You Call?

When you’re not sure what’s right, there are a few resources you can use to decide what to do. Many health insurance companies provide a 24-hour nurse line for quick and reliable information on care options and can even help locating the nearest in-network facility. There are also online resources such as the UnitedHealthcare QuickCare website to guide decision making. There’s even an online “Is It Really an Emergency?” quiz to help patients make informed decisions in the future.