The face of health care has changed over the last couple of decades. People are encouraged to take more responsibility for their own health, like following healthy diet tips, getting regular exercise, and looking for health advice online, before heading to the doctor.
Part of the change has been brought about because of the lack of access to affordable health insurance, and ultimately affordable health care. Prevention has taken a front seat in how we approach health care now. If you can prevent the illness through a healthy lifestyle, then you will not have to shell out the big bucks for medical care to treat the health problem.
Of course, no matter how cautious you are with your health, there is always the risk of injury or illness. What do you do when you get sick or injured? If you are like many Americans you head to your local urgent care center.
According to a recent article in Forbes magazine, the number of local urgent care centers has increased by 6% to over 7,000 centers since 2018, and the industry now generates about 18 billion dollars a year. These medium care facilities are growing in popularity because they are filling in the gap between affordable health care and skyrocketing health insurance costs.
What Are Urgent Care Centers?
Local Urgent Care Centers are medical facilities that are typically staffed by Physician Assistants, Nurses, and are overseen by a Medical Doctor. They often are conveniently located in shopping centers and strip malls, usually within a short drive from residential areas. They are fully equipped to handle minor emergency care like sprains, breaks, and certain common illnesses.
Urgent care centers are quickly becoming the go-to place for minor injuries. Getting immediate care for shoulder pain, tennis elbow, and other minor injuries and illness from an urgent care center can be more convenient and cost-effective than other health care options.
Many centers offer:
- Student athletics examinations
- Flu vaccines
- X-Ray services and lab work
- Employment screenings
- Treatments for a wide range of illnesses, prescription refills and more
These medical centers offer a wide range of health care services that attract many patients because of their affordability, and convenience. It can be an ideal way to manage sudden injuries and acute illnesses.
They may have onsite labs where blood work can be quickly reviewed to evaluate for common illnesses like the flu. Depending on what your complaint is will dictate what services are provided. In most cases, the local urgent care center is not going to run unnecessary tests. Either they have an answer for you based on your symptoms and some minimal testing or they will refer you somewhere else.
The cost savings from doing away with unnecessary testing can be astounding. A good example is the student athletic examination. You can go to a private doctor and pay anywhere from $100- $150 or you can go to the local urgent care center and pay one flat fee between $25-$40. If your student is healthy why would you pay an exorbitant amount to have a physical done?
How Does Care at an Urgent Care Work?
Let’s say you are a counselor at a summer camp and you twisted your ankle during one of the summer camp activities. You do not have health insurance. Going to the hospital emergency room could rack up a bill in excess of $1800 just for an X-ray. You can also expect to be there from 4-5 hours on average. You decide to go to the local Urgent Care center instead.
You can expect to wait less than an hour, and wind up with a bill less than $200 (depending on your region). You will walk out with your Xrays on a disc, your ankle will be stabilized, and you may have a referral to a foot and ankle specialist for a follow-up.
You can get the same exact care that you would get at the emergency room, minus the lengthy wait and the huge bill. Of course, you are not likely to see an orthopedic specialist at a local urgent care, but ultimately the question is, does it take an orthopedic specialist to determine if your ankle is sprained or broke? The answer is no it does not.
What You Need to Know About A Hospital Emergency Room Visit
A hospital emergency room is not there to cure or really treat. That service is there to stabilize you. Emergency rooms are there for legitimate life-threatening emergencies. They are outfitted for life-saving activities. They are not there to come up with a treatment plan, although for the uninsured or underinsured they are often used as such.
One of the biggest complaints about emergency care at the hospital is the long waits. The fact is, it is not because no one is doing their job, the long wait is because people are doing their job. Patients are seen in order of precedence. If you walk in with a twisted ankle, and someone else is having chest pains, you go to the bottom of the list. Even if you walked in first, you go to the bottom of the pile of people to be seen if someone walks in with a more serious problem or if an ambulance comes in with a patient.
The cost of being seen in the emergency room is grossly inflated. A Tylenol for pain in the emergency room will cost you about $15 for a single Tylenol. Any time a nurse hands you a pill to take the charge on average is $6.25. That means that one Tylenol handed to you by a nurse just cost you about $21. The cost of emergency room care has climbed 176% since 2017.
When you are charged in the emergency room you are charged for the entire package. You are paying for the expertise of the higher paid staff. You are charged for access to the equipment, even if you did not use it. The cost is inflated to compensate for all the extras that are available in the emergency room. Someone has to pay for it, so each patient is overcharged for simple things like Tylenol or even tissues.
As a point of reference according to many a bankruptcy lawyer, people are driven into bankruptcy because of medical bills. Medical costs have skyrocketed leaving many people without access to health care or filing bankruptcy because they did get the care.
Urgent Care Centers are filling in where emergency care is simply too costly, especially when it comes to injuries and illnesses that patients are on the fence about. We all have experienced colds that left us sure that the next breath would be the last and backaches that felt akin to that long-awaited tumor diagnosis we knew was coming but in a flash of reason something just says, this is not the end, I just need to be seen to feel better.
Heading to the local urgent care center is just is a more rational choice that is far more affordable. You walk in sure this might be the end, and you walk out with the assurance that it is not and some meds to get you through for a couple of hundred bucks. It is easy to see why this growing field is really taking off.
It is Not Always the Right Choice
There is a time and place for everything. Getting online health advice is great if you are mostly in good health. Following mental health tips when you are feeling a little off can help you get back in the groove of things. There are plenty of ways you can improve your health without ever having to step into a doctor’s office of any kind, but there are some cases when you really just have to bite the bullet and get to the emergency room.
If you have a life-threatening condition, do not stop in at the local urgent care, get to the emergency room. Chest pains, profuse bleeding from a severe injury (think compound fracture), are undergoing any type of cancer treatment, suffer from HIV, fighting opioid dependence or having seizures, get to the emergency room. An urgent care center is not for you.
Urgent care centers are not meant for wellness care. They are meant for medium type emergent situations. They are not meant for long term treatment options either. They can address a wide range of immediate problems, but not provide care for long term conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and other conditions that require continuous monitoring by a health care professional.
Each urgent care center has its own list of services that they can provide and what services they do not provide. Most every urgent care center does not take care of problems with your teeth unless you have an abscess that requires antibiotics, then you may be able to find some help.
With the current opioid epidemic, most local urgent care centers are prohibited from prescribing pain control medications, except in very small amounts when the problem warrants it. Getting other types of prescriptions refilled may be possible. For example, you take high blood pressure medication and unexpectedly ran out and your doctor is out of town till the end of the week. You may be able to get a refill from urgent care.
Finding the Balance
Urgent care centers have their place in providing reliable health care for injuries, and acute sudden common illnesses, but they are not the end-all when it comes to health care. There are limits to what an urgent care can offer in the way of services. For example, you would be hard-pressed to find an urgent care center with an MRI machine, CAT scan machine or other types of sophisticated diagnostic testing tools.
You would also be hard-pressed to find specialty doctors at your local urgent care, so if your situation leans towards the complicated side of things you may not be able to find the care that you need.
Overall, urgent care centers can meet the majority of your health care needs if you are for the most part in good health. Most people between the ages of 18 to 35 can with confidence get the care that they need from these providers (in the absence of serious conditions or illnesses).
Does Insurance Pay for An Urgent Care Visit?
For the lucky people that do have health insurance the good news is that most plans cover a visit to the urgent care center. When you look at it from an insurance perspective, these medical providers are a great deal. Insurance companies pay less for the care than they would in the emergency room. Many insurance companies actually encourage their members to seek immediate care at an urgent care provider instead of heading to the emergency room for care.
Insurance companies are always looking for ways to save a buck. Some even have “network provider” urgent care centers so members can pay very low-cost co-pays to be seen there. The average co-pay at an urgent care center for the most popular health insurance plans is about $25.
Without Health Insurance What Can I Expect to Pay?
Cost is relative to the region that you live in when it comes to paying for urgent care. For example, in North Carolina, the going rate for care for the uninsured at an urgent care center is right at around $110. The same services in New York would be around $150.
Many of these centers offer insurance options through the center sort of a prepay program. If you do not have health insurance the prepay for care type program could be a great safety net, but in the event, you never get sick or injured, you do not get the money back.
Urgent care is a great way to get the health care on an a la carte type menu. It is there when you need it and is helping a lot of people meet their health care needs.