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Emergency Room or Urgent Care? Understanding the Differences and Costs

You slipped on the stairs and feel your ankle throbbing. Your cough has lasted all month. 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 or urgent care?

When these situations occur and we need immediate care, many face uncertainty due to the number of options available – and where you choose could be the difference between paying hundreds, or thousands of dollars. In fact, rushing to the emergency room for non-life-threatening ailments may cost patients nearly 10 times more than visiting an urgent care center. 

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 is a great 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 $170. 

Emergency Room

Day or night, the hospital emergency room provides medical care. If your condition requires fast and advanced treatments, like surgery, go to the emergency room. The ER helps people with life-threatening or dangerous conditions first. 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 $2,000.

Dr. Robert Kantor, market chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare, urges people to take a moment to think through their symptoms before rushing to the emergency room.

“It’s a difficult situation when you’re experiencing it,” he said. “Your mind is not always so clear.”

WATCH VIDEO: Urgent care or ER    

Have you considered a virtual visit?

According to a National Center for Health Statistics study, of patients who went to the emergency room but were not admitted, 48 percent say they chose the ER because their doctor’s office was not open.

If you are faced with a non-emergency health condition – like a migraine, sore throat or stomachache – but your doctor’s office is closed, you may consider a virtual visit. This allows you to chat face-to-face with a doctor, day or night, and can save you up to $2,000 when compared to a visit to the ER**.

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

Still not sure?

Many health insurance companies have a 24-hour nurse line that can help you with decisions like where to go for care. You can also compare your quick care options with UnitedHealthcare’s online resource. If you or a loved one are experiencing what you feel to be life-threatening symptoms other than those listed, trust your gut, and 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.