Know where to go: How to choose between the doctor’s office, urgent care and the ER

Hospital Know Where to Go

Some decisions are straightforward: If your car needs repairs, you go to the mechanic. If you need a haircut, you go to a hair salon. But when it comes to healthcare, the choice is not always so clear.

When you’re feeling sick or are injured, there are several key places you can go for medical care: a doctor’s office, an urgent care center, a retail health clinic or the emergency room. Here’s a quick guide to help you know where to go, based on the urgency of your ailment and your budget.

Doctor’s Office: Your primary care doctor should be your first call in non-emergency situations. Your doctor knows you and your health history, including what medications you are taking and what chronic conditions might need to be considered in your treatment. Plus, the co-pay for a visit to your doctor’s office will cost far less than a trip to the emergency room.

This option can also help you avoid the long wait times typically found in an emergency room. Even if your doctor is unavailable or not an expert in the area of care you need, he or she can refer you to a specialist or another medical professional.

If you don’t have a primary care doctor, take some time to review the options in your network and select one. You can find tips on how to choose a doctor that’s right for you here.

Urgent Care Center or Retail Health Clinic: If you can’t reach your doctor or need care outside of regular office hours, urgent care centers and retail health clinics are good options. Retail health clinics are walk-in clinics found in many large pharmacies and retail stores. They are staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants and are designed to treat simple conditions, like cold and flu, ear infections and skin conditions. Urgent care centers have physicians on staff and can provide care for a greater range of conditions, including performing x-rays.

In most cases, the out-of-pocket cost for visiting a retail health clinic or urgent care center will cost less than a trip to the emergency room, but it’s always a good idea to check to make sure the location you select is covered by your plan. You can find a list of the urgent care centers in your network on your Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) company’s website, or by calling the 1-800 number on the back of your member ID card.

Emergency Room: Emergency rooms are designed to treat urgent, acute and life threatening conditions and aren’t the place for routine care or minor ailments. If you feel you are dealing with a health emergency, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away. Otherwise, one of the above options will save you time and money, and clear the way for patients in need of emergency treatment.

Many BCBS companies also offer a 24-hour nurse line, which you can call any time with questions about your symptoms, complications from medication or advice on when to go to the doctor or emergency room. Check the back of your member ID card or your local BCBS company’s website for more information.

By Elizabeth Casey

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association is an association of 36 independent, locally operated Blue Cross and/or Blue Shield companies.