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What Is Primary Care and How Does It Differ From Urgent Care and the ER?

What is primary care? How is an urgent care center different from an emergency room? Understanding the different levels of care lets you get the most from your health plan.

What is Primary Care

Where You Get Care Could Save You Money. It's important to learn what primary care is and how it differs from urgent care and emergency room care. Unless you have a real medical emergency, you will likely save money by visiting your primary care doctor or an urgent care clinic instead of a hospital-based emergency room.

What Is Primary Care?

A primary care physician is the doctor you see when you have a minor illness or injury. You might also refer to him or her as your family doctor. Some primary care doctors offer basic diagnostic tools such as X-Rays and laboratory services. You usually need an appointment to see your primary care physician for an office visit, and many offer same-day appointments. This doctor can also refer you to the appropriate medical office if you need a higher level of care from a specialist.

Urgent Care

Sometimes called a walk-in clinic, an urgent care center provides health care services for patients who don't have an appointment or a primary care doctor. These centers are usually open in the evenings and on weekends and offer treatment for minor illnesses and injuries such as the flu or a sprained ankle. Urgent care centers are staffed by physicians, nurse practitioners and physicians' assistants. They are not equipped to treat traumatic injuries or life-threatening illnesses.

Emergency Room Visit

Emergency rooms are for the sickest, most severely injured people, such as those experiencing a heart attack or stroke or who have been hurt in a car accident. Emergency rooms are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are located in hospitals or medical centers that offer comprehensive medical services and are staffed by specialists.

Your Health Plan and Levels of Care

Your health plan will pay a portion of the associated costs when you see any of these providers. However, there are some things you should know before you decide which level of care you need.

Your costs are usually the lowest for visits to a primary care doctor or urgent care center. You will pay much more for emergency room visits and may have to pay both the hospital and the doctor who sees you. You may also have to pay the radiologist who looks at your X-Ray or a lab that tests your blood.

Depending on your health plan benefits, you may have to meet an annual deductible before the costs associated with emergency room visits are paid.

If your illness or injury isn't life-threatening, your health plan may not pay for a trip to the emergency room.

It is important to learn what primary care is and how it differs from urgent and emergency room care. Unless you have a real medical emergency, you will receive more appropriate care and save money by visiting your primary care doctor or an urgent care clinic instead of a hospital-based emergency room.

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