Blog Post

December 17, 2023

A Case of Mistaken Identity: How to Spot the Difference Between Urgent Care and Freestanding ER

If you think about it in a literary sense, the words "urgent" and "emergency" parallel each other in terms of their meanings. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that people interchange these words for two facilities that are very different from each other when it comes to healthcare.

While patients have long been justified in attributing emergency rooms to hospitals and urgent care centers to standalone facilities, they can no longer do so with any accuracy. Freestanding emergency room services now inundate Texas, creating confusion for patients who intended to seek urgent care services instead of the costlier ER services.

What’s the big deal?

In terms of medical service, both facilities are staffed and equipped to cater to patients in need of immediate medical attention, but any life-threatening cases should be handled by an ER. Meanwhile, for non-emergency cases—sprains, falls, headaches, and similar maladies— urgent care meets such needs.

The major difference between the two is mainly the price. According to a recent study conducted by experts at Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, and University of Health Science Center, the average visit to a freestanding emergency room can cost up to $2,199 – that is $2,030 higher than your average urgent care visit. Even with insurance, patients are expected to pay at least one-third of the bill out of their own pockets.

Therefore, mistaking a freestanding ER for an urgent care facility proves costly. You will know too late when you receive the bill. Yet more disconcerting is learning that 15 of the 20 most common reasons for visiting an ER can easily be treated at an urgent care facility for much less money.

Spotting the difference

The most obvious warnings that you are entering an ER is the word, "emergency." If it appears at the entry or other area near the facility, it is likely an ER. In fact, Texas law induces freestanding ERs to declare what they are to avoid client confusion. It does so by making such postings a prerequisite to obtaining the appropriate licenses and permits to build an ER in Texas.

Another easy way to discern between the two is by asking the person behind the reception desk. Again, Texas law stipulates that freestanding ERs must inform their patients, or at the very least, point them out to the direction of the nearest urgent care facility if the injury is not life threatening. However, a majority of patients who commit this costly mistake indicate such notices are not always issued at the ER.

The more informed you are about the particular facility, the less likely you’ll make the mistake of confusing urgent care centers with freestanding ERs. After all, you don’t want to end up with huge medical debts for a relatively minor injury simply because you failed to read "emergency" at the entrance.

Should You See Your Doctor, Go to an Urgent-Care Clinic, or Head to the ER?,
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