Where to Get Medical Care

If you have a deep cut, need minor surgery, or have the flu, where do you go for care?

Traditionally, you'd go to the local emergency department, be admitted to the hospital, or make an appointment at your health care provider's office. Now you have more choices. 

Where you are treated makes a difference in terms of convenience and in the cost of care.

Keep in mind, if you have a true emergency, such as symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, or a serious cut or injury, don't hesitate to go to the emergency room. That's what it's there for. But when an injury or illness is less serious pressing, take some time to review your options. Often, a medical self-care guide can help you make a decision. 

Here are some of the newer treatment facilities: 

Urgent-care centers

Urgent-care centers provide medical care for conditions that aren't an immediate, serious threat to life or health. They are not intended to provide emergency care. In many cases, they are like a walk-in doctor's office.

The biggest difference between an urgent-care facility and a health care provider's office is that you can walk in without an appointment. Also, at an urgent-care center, you probably won't see the same provider from visit to visit.   

Many people use these clinics as their primary health care providers. Others use them only for walk-in treatment for illnesses or injuries.

Advantages: Many urgent-care centers charge about the same as or a little more than a health care provider's office, but they may be only half the cost of the hospital emergency department, with far less waiting time. Many offer convenient on-site laboratory testing and X-rays. Some also fill prescriptions. You won't have to wait while patients with more serious illnesses or injuries are being treated like in emergency rooms. The centers stay open later than most health care providers' offices and some are open nearly every day of the year. If you need more care than they can provide, they’ll get you to an emergency department quickly.

Disadvantages: If you’re not a regular patient at the urgent-care center, your records won’t be on file. The staff won’t be as familiar with your medical history as your primary care provider. Walk-ins often have a longer wait than a scheduled appointment at their own health care providers' offices. Some urgent-care centers don’t accept health insurance from certain carriers, so be sure to check before you're treated. If you have a true emergency, going to an urgent-care center that cannot take care of you only delays your care.

Ambulatory surgery centers

If surgery is in your future, ask your health care provider if outpatient (ambulatory) surgery is an option. Improved technology, pain control, and less-invasive procedures allow many surgeries to be done in a health care provider’s office, outpatient clinic, or ambulatory surgery center. Some of the procedures include hernia repair, cosmetic surgery, gallbladder removal, and tonsil removal.

Advantages: You avoid a hospital stay and get to recover in the comfort and privacy of your own home. You receive high-quality care at far less cost than at a hospital. Operations are more likely to be on schedule. Complications are rare. If they do occur, the ambulatory surgery center has a backup plan for transferring patients to a hospital.

Disadvantages: Not all patients or procedures can be done as outpatient surgery.

Retail store sites

These are small medical offices within some large retail pharmacies. The health care providers are usually nurse practitioners or physician assistants.

Advantages: Because the office is located in a store setting, you can shop for medicines or other items while you wait. Prices are usually clearly posted, so you know upfront what any charges will be.

Disadvantages: These sites do not have doctors and only limited equipment. Because the offices are within pharmacies, the only treatment available may be medications, even when there are other options.

Making a decision

Serious, life-threatening injuries or conditions are medical emergencies and should be treated in a hospital emergency department. For less urgent problems, be sure to check with your insurance plan to find out if the above facilities are covered.