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When You Should Think Twice Before Going to the Emergency Room

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Fact: Health care is hella complicated (even without all the political drama). Sometimes, finding in-network providers seems like it could be harder than going to med school yourself! But if you're attempting to shortcut the process by heading to the ER for the occasional health issue, you're doing it wrong.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 96 percent of ER patients are indeed seeking emergency care accordingly—but millennials might be heading there more often than they need to be. About 37 percent of millennial men and 30 percent of millennial women in their 20s seek out emergency room doctors more often than any other medical professional when they're looking for care, according to a survey done by health care company Amino. (In fact, Amino found that 64 percent of millennial flu diagnoses are made by emergency docs—a condition that usually isn't ER-level serious, unless you're a young child, elderly, have a chronic condition or are pregnant.)

Why You Should Skip the ER

The main issue with hitting up the ER for every ache and pain has less to do with the care you receive and more to do with your wallet. Among both insured and uninsured people, ER visits account for the largest share of medical bills that people have trouble paying, according to a 2016 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the New York Times. Another recent study found that even if you go to an in-network hospital, your medical bills for visiting an ER are likely to be higher than expected, due to out-of-network doctors working in emergency facilities, as reported by the New York Times.

While you might know to budget for your monthly gym membership or Netflix subscription, most people aren't prepared for these unexpected medical costs. More than 60 percent of people think that receiving a medical bill they can't afford is just as bad as or worse than being diagnosed with a serious illness, according to another survey by Amino. And that doesn't mean thousands upon thousands of dollars; the same survey found that 37 percent of Americans said they couldn't afford an unexpected medical bill greater than $100 without going into debt. (And you're going to want to save your dollars, considering preventative health care costs for women might be increasing soon.)

In addition to the cost, you'll probably need to wait a while in the ER, says Blake Cleveland, M.D., an emergency medicine doctor in Fairfield, California, in a release. (Plus, you'll suffer that wait surrounded by patients with conditions that are ER-level scary—blood, germs, and all that jazz.)

ER or Urgent Care?

That doesn't mean to tough it out, though. Nearly one in four Americans report medical conditions getting worse because they didn't go to the emergency department out of fear their insurance wouldn't cover the costs, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP). So what should you do if your own doctor can't fit you in until next week (or if you don't have your own doctor yet)? Go to an urgent care facility—it's often a cheaper and more accessible alternative. Currently, millennials only make up 15.7 percent of visits to urgent care facilities. However, an increase in the number of these facilities (there are now close to 10K in the U.S.) will hopefully have patients visiting those instead of the hospital when the issue isn't super serious.

"Your cost of care will most likely be much higher in an ER," said Dr. Cleveland. "An ER offers immediate access to a broad range of services, tests, imaging, and beyond, so your costs reflect this comparatively." Urgent care facilities, on the other hand, can handle non-life-threatening issues just as well, he said.

Not sure whether to head to urgent care or the ER? "If you think you need to see a professional for treatment and think you're probably going to go home at the end of that, then, in general, those are things that can be cared for at urgent care," said Tanya Shah, M.D., an emergency medicine doctor in Northern Virginia, in a release. "Things that need an ER are usually because you need the hospital-level of care."

Keep in mind that urgent care facilities aren't available 100 percent of the time and aren't meant for super serious health issues; in fact, only one percent of them are open 24 hours a day, according to Amino's report. They're meant to handle minor issues—such as the flu, a fever, earaches, nausea, rashes, animal and insect bites, minor bone fractures and minor cuts requiring stitches, according to ACEP—but aren't meant to screen and treat more serious health problems. So if something is really wrong or your local urgent care office is closed, the ER is the place to go. 

"While we agree that urgent care centers are good for the purposes of minor medical ailments or when your doctor’s office is closed, it’s not a substitute for emergency care," says Mike Baldyga, a representative from ACEP. "Many patients actually go to urgent care only to be redirected to the emergency room because the condition was more serious and that urgent care wasn’t equipped to handle their needs. This delay in care can make matters worse." 

So play it smart but, no, a sniffle probably isn't a reason to head to the hospital. Instead, use Amino's new urgent care finder to scope out the closest spot to you. You'll be back to your Netflix queue faster (and without sacrificing a ton of cash) because of it.

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