Lately, misconceptions about freestanding emergency rooms have been circulating in healthcare news, due in large part to the frustration that consumers express over the services provided and the price of treatment. The confusion, however, has a lot to do with the lack of education between freestanding ERs and urgent care facilities, which isn’t surprising because of the amount of insufficient information the public has received.
The fact that freestanding ERs and urgent cares are surfacing so rapidly—and often, so close to each other—creates confusion for patients, because both concepts are relatively new to the healthcare industry. Names and signage also contribute to confusion between the two types of treatment centers. Consider the names “CareNow” and “Complete Emergency Care”: Can you tell which facility is an urgent care and which is a freestanding ER? If you’re responsible for taking someone to get medical attention, would you know where to go?
An influx of freestanding ERs and urgent cares, along with unclear signage and other factors, are making it harder for consumers to understand the true value of freestanding ERs.
How are you supposed to know if you can get the level of care you deserve? Or know roughly how much you should expect to pay for treatment?
Read on for some common myths associated with freestanding emergency rooms, and learn about each issue step-by-step so that you can be more prepared if you’re in need of emergency care.
Myth 1: Freestanding emergency rooms provide the same medical services as urgent care centers.
Fact: Freestanding emergency rooms are not the same thing as urgent care centers. While they might not operate as an attachment of a hospital, freestanding ERs are licensed to treat people for serious emergencies. Freestanding ERs can offer 24/7 laboratory and imaging services, as well as Board Certified physicians on-site at all times. Urgent care centers cannot offer these services, partly because of their limited hours and staff.
Most freestanding emergency rooms can treat heart attacks, broken bones, strokes and other medical emergencies just like emergency rooms in hospitals. Those who do need an extended level of care can be transferred to a hospital; however only about 12% of freestanding emergency room cases are expected to need hospital admission.
Urgent cares, conversely, are equipped to treat minor or acutely rising medical conditions that patients feel require immediate medical attention, but are not medical emergencies. Several urgent care centers operate similarly to regular physician offices, but with limited night and weekend hours.
What You Should Do: Don’t wait until a medical emergency is happening to decide if you need to go to the ER or an urgent care. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with both options in your area. Do so by searching for locations around your home, work or school, and keep track of their addresses just in case. Feel free to call your nearby ER or urgent care with questions beforehand, which saves you from going back and forth during a medical emergency.
Many ER facilities will point you to an urgent care if they feel you don’t need emergency medical treatment rather than giving you unnecessary levels of care for your condition; and urgent cares will recommend that you go to ERs if they feel your condition is too serious for their services.
Myth 2: Freestanding emergency rooms aren’t state-licensed or regulated.
Fact: All freestanding emergency centers are licensed by the state to give 24-hour emergency care to patients at the same level as traditional hospital emergency rooms. Of the many freestanding emergency rooms you may pass on your way home from work, there are two different types:
• Hospital owned freestanding emergency centers: The affiliated hospital operates these emergency rooms as their own departments.
• Independent freestanding emergency centers: Could be owned by physicians and must obtain the same accreditation as hospital emergency rooms, so they uphold the same standards.
Unlike urgent care centers, freestanding ERs are required to meet certain requirements to be state-licensed. They are required to:
• Operate 24/7
• Have ER physicians on-site at all times
• Provide 24-hour lab and imaging services
• Have stocked medications that are not required by urgent care centers
What You Should Do: Like making a major purchase, choosing where to receive medical attention (whether it’s an emergency or not) is an impactful decision. It’s one that requires researching and discussing with your family what is important when it comes to the quality of care you receive. Spend time researching regulations for both freestanding ERs and urgent cares, and talking to your family physician for recommendations in the area.
Myth 3: Freestanding emergency rooms don’t play nice with outside doctors or hospitals.
Fact: Many reputable freestanding emergency rooms have relationships with nearby physicians or urgent cares and will refer you if your situation isn’t an emergency. The same should happen if you go to an urgent care and they feel your condition is an emergency and in need of immediate attention.
Some freestanding emergency rooms can be associated with major hospitals; these are referred as hospital outpatient departments (HOPDs).
What You Should Do: If you arrive at a freestanding emergency room, but your situation is not a medical emergency, ask the registrar or nurse to refer you to the nearest urgent care or physician’s office if there is one open.
Myth 4: Freestanding emergency rooms are overpriced.
One reason patients feel a disconnect between their bill and the treatment they received at a freestanding ER is because they may feel their treatment doesn’t warrant such a high cost. And depending on where a patient goes for treatment, it might not be clear how the facility handles the relationship between billing and insurance.
Fact: Freestanding emergency rooms operate in the same way that hospital emergency rooms do, which means that they operate under the same laws and requirements, have similar equipment and staff, and can charge in the same price range. But, as stated previously, freestanding emergency rooms are licensed, equipped and staffed to handle major medical emergencies. Because of this level of care, they are typically more expensive than urgent care facilities and normal physician visits. Urgent cares are not able to handle the same severity of injuries or illnesses that freestanding emergency rooms can.
Patients without medical insurance will not be turned away for major medical emergencies, and some freestanding ERs provide payment plans to help solve insurance confusion.
What You Should Do: If you feel like you have to visit an emergency room, be conscious of the associated cost if you can. It’s a good idea to call ahead of time and ask the registrar if your insurance is accepted.
If you do feel like your bill is wrong, or you were overcharged, most freestanding ERs have a bill pay department or third-party source that you can contact to discuss the problem. Your bill should have a contact number on it, so feel free to reach out and resolve any issues or ask for a billing specialist/advocate for help.
With the rapid uprising of freestanding emergency rooms and urgent cares, consumers have been understandably confused about services offered, associated cost and the overall difference between the two types of treatment centers. Understanding how freestanding ERs actually operate is important before you find yourself in a medical emergency. The more educated you are, the more time you can save when an emergency occurs.