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Wellness

How to find urgent care and avoid a hefty hospital bill

Online or in-person, here’s where to get quick medical attention for less money.

CVS minute clinic

Knowing where to go for which health conditions can spare you a shocking hospital bill.

Portland Press Herald / Getty Images

An ankle sprain, a migraine, an ear infection... where do you go when the pain is bad enough to seek help, but not severe enough to warrant a hospital stay? I'm willing to bet that many people would answer, "The ER, duh!," but that option carries the risk of getting a bill well over $1,000 just for a doctor to check on you and prescribe painkillers. 

Most minor injuries and illnesses can be treated quickly at an often-overlooked type of healthcare facility, and even online if they don't require hands-on treatment. Keep reading to learn more about urgent care and how to find the right type of urgent care service for you. 

Urgent care vs. emergency room vs. hospital ER

Surprisingly, many people don't know where to go for certain illnesses and injuries. Next time you come down with something, remember these key differences between hospital emergency rooms, standalone emergency rooms and urgent care facilities. 

Hospital ER

Most people picture the traditional hospital ER when they think of emergency rooms. These offer 24-hour service year-round, with the skilled staff and the best technology to provide care in just about every situation imaginable. A hospital ER isn't the place for you, however, if you only have a minor injury. 

Hospital ERs don't work on a first-come, first-served basis -- they take the most pressing life-threatening cases, like heart attacks, strokes or serious head trauma, first. You may be stuck in the waiting room for hours if your condition isn't life threatening, but you (or your insurance) will still get a hefty bill for using the hospital's services.

Women sitting in hospital waiting room

With a minor injury, you could be waiting at the ER for hours to be seen.

/ Getty Images

Standalone emergency room

Freestanding ERs can typically provide almost everything a hospital ER can provide, and they're usually staffed by physicians and specialists in addition to nurses. In some cases, such as a need for immediate surgery, a standalone ER may need to refer you to a hospital.

These may be owned by a hospital or be individually owned, but either way, the bills may give you sticker shock: Experts estimate that the average cost of an emergency room visit is well over $1,000. In the case that your condition required a subsequent visit to a hospital, you may receive two bills. 

Urgent care

Walk-in, standalone urgent care facilities usually do not offer all of the same services as standalone emergency rooms. This is because they're often staffed by nurses, nurse practitioners and physician assistants rather than physicians and surgeons. Most don't offer 24-hour service like ERs do, but they do usually offer 10 to 12 hours of service each day, six or seven days per week. 

It might seem like urgent care facilities have a lot of limitations, but the truth is that most people don't actually need everything an emergency room can offer them. Most of the time, urgent care will suffice. A sprained joint, a grease burn, a bacterial infection or even a minor cyst, for example, can all be taken care of at an urgent care center. 

Plus, you'll pay less: Most urgent care visits only require a copay. If you do go to an urgent care facility with a condition that's outside of their scope, they will refer you to a nearby emergency room. 

medexpress-urgent-care1

Many urgent care facilities, like MedExpress, operate like chain restaurants, with many locations across multiple states.

MedExpress Urgent Care

Standalone urgent care facilities

All states have local and regional urgent care facilities, some as offshoots of hospitals and some that are individually owned. A few urgent care companies operate as chains, much like pharmacies do, with many locations across multiple states.

Here are the top 10 largest standalone urgent care chains, according to healthdatamanagement.com:

  1. MedExpress Urgent Care: 252 sites in 22 states
  2. American Family Care: 200 sites in 26 states
  3. U.S. HealthWorks/Dignity/GoHealth: 173 sites in 21 states
  4. NextCare Urgent Care: 139 sites in 10 states
  5. FastMed Urgent Care: 109 sites in three states
  6. HCA CareNow: 103 sites in 10 states
  7. CareSpot Urgent Care: 99 sites in at 4 states
  8. CityMD/Premier Care: 96 sites in 3 states
  9. GoHealth Urgent Care: 84 sites in 6 states

Online urgent care

Nowadays, you can develop a primary care relationship with a doctor online, but you can also "stop in" for urgent care online in a-la-carte fashion. Keep in mind that online urgent care is limited: You can't get treatment for things that require hands-on attention such as cuts, bone fractures or burns. But you can receive a diagnosis and treatment for ear infections, urinary tract infections, the flu, skin rashes, mild allergies and more.

Next time you need quick care for a condition that isn't life-threatening, check out one of these online urgent care services:

Blood pressure

Drugstore clinics can help with a surprising number of illnesses and injuries, including bacterial infections and lacerations.

Obencem/iStockphoto

Drugstores with clinics

If you want something potentially quicker than a standalone urgent care clinic, but still want to see a professional in person, some drugstores and retail stores offer walk-in clinics for minor conditions. Most of the time, these types of clinics are staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants rather than physicians, but they can still treat a lot of injuries and conditions. 

At a drugstore clinic, you can almost always get help with common illnesses including strep throat, pink eye and infections. You can also receive vaccines for the flu and sometimes other diseases, get treated for minor injuries (acute joint sprains, cuts, insect stings and so on) and get routine lab work and health screenings.

These five drugstores and retail stores offer quick care clinics at many locations across the US, but many local drugstores also offer this service. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.