Options for Care
Many doctors’ offices have extended hours for emergencies or sudden illness. But there are real differences among the other facilities, differences in type of care, how quickly the care is delivered and how much your bill will be.
For example, Vik Medical facilities provide both urgent care and walk-in primary care. Dr. Michael Vik says there are some situations best handled by urgent care and others that require an ER.
“For a hurt wrist, go to an urgent care center. If you have a sore throat and cough, but not a lot of other medical problems, go to urgent care. But if somebody has a bad cough, they’re short of breath, and there’s chest pain—that’s something for an ER,” says Dr. Vik.
Dr. Okem Okpara, medical director for Austin Emergency Center, an FSER, agrees that patients should base their choice of facility on how serious the problem is.
“If you have an emergency situation and it’s 2 a.m., your options are either an FSER or a hospital ER,” says Dr. Okpara. “And there are certain cases where it’s best to call 911.”
Differences in Care and Amenities
But what is different at the various facilities? If you go to an urgent care, they’ll offer x-ray services on site and usually a lab. Other services vary—some will offer drug testing, occupational medicine or CT scans. The number of amenities will also vary. At an urgent care, you’ll usually be treated by a family practitioner, a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant.
“Urgent care allows people flexibility,” says Dr. Vik. “Urgent care is like, we want it and we want it today.”
FSERs, which started in Texas following legislation passed in 2009, offer different services and hours and are staffed differently.
“Every FSER has a lab and a pharmacy. We’re open 24/7,” says Dr. Okpara. “We also have a pharmacy with IV fluids and antibiotics.” Dr. Okpara says that convenience is one of the biggest selling points for the FSER. “Part of the reason FSERs are doing so well is that people want fast attention.”
“There is typically no wait because we don’t receive ambulance traffic,” says Dr. Okpara. “The other selling point is that it’s nice—it’s a setting that tries to make you comfortable.”
At the far end of the spectrum is the hospital ER. There, you’ll be treated by an emergency room physician with all of the medical equipment, staff and expertise to deal with complicated emergencies. But it all comes at a price—and not just the bill. Since the ER is based around a triage system, if you’re at an ER for a sore throat, you can usually expect a long wait as they care for people who are far sicker.
The Cost of Convenience
What you might not realize is that there is a cost difference when you choose an urgent care clinic or an FSER.
“Most people have copays,” says Dr. Vik. “Your regular doctor has the lowest copay, urgent care has an intermediate copay and the ER has the highest one. It’s a buyer beware market out there. People have to realize that they’re paying for convenience.”
Other things may also affect your bill. “There’s a set deductible to meet before your insurance kicks in,” says Dr. Okpara. “If you haven’t met your deductible, the expenses are your responsibility.”
Whatever type of emergency facility you choose, ask a few questions first.
“Ask, ‘do you take my insurance?’ says Vik. “If they don’t, then ask, ‘what might my bill be?’ That’s a reasonable question to ask.”
Also ask if the facility is in-network or out-of-network, as it impacts how much you’ll be charged for your visit.
“If patients understand what is a true emergency, they can make the right choice and have the right expectation of the care they are going to get,” says Dr. Okpara.
Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.