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Emergency Room: The Health Encyclopedia

April 2, 2014
Health, Medical Costs
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1. What is an emergency room?

An emergency room, commonly known as an ER, is a department in a hospital that provides immediate treatment for severe injuries or illnesses. Patients don’t make appointments to visit the emergency room and are either brought in by an ambulance or another person, or come in on their own.

2. When should I go to the emergency room?

You should go to the emergency room if you have an illness or injury that is serious or life-threatening. These injuries require immediate treatment for a person’s well-being. Some examples include:

If the injury or illness does not require immediate treatment, you should not go to the emergency room. For injury or illness that is not severe and can wait a day or two for treatment without causing further harm – such as chronic medical problems, a cold that just won’t go away, or preventive care – make an appointment with your primary care provider.

For those issues that can’t wait for an appointment with your doctor but are not life-threatening, you should go to urgent care rather than the emergency room. Some examples include:

  • Sprains
  • Minor sickness (cold, flu, fever)
  • Broken bones
  • Infections (ear, urinary tract, etc.)
  • Minor allergic reactions


3. How much does it cost to go to the emergency room?

The cost of an emergency room visit depends on a variety of factors including: whether you have insurance and the type of insurance (and if you’re at an in-network hospital–particularly for HMO insurance plans), for what condition you’re being seen, and tests and/or procedures that need to be performed during your visit. According to PLOS ONE, for the top 10 most common conditions, the minimum price for an emergency room visit for uninsured patients was between $1,117 and $1,241; for patients with private insurance, it was between $1,206 and $1,248; and for patients with Medicaid, it was between $1,215 and $1,395. If you end up with an MRI or other expensive procedure, however, your bill could be much higher.

4. How can I save on my visit to the emergency room?

  • Check with your insurance provider before your visit to be sure the hospital you visit is in-network. Since you may not have time to call your insurance company before rushing to the emergency room, it is a good idea to know which emergency rooms in your area are in your network before you need it.
  • If time permits, shop around. Costs for treatments at different hospitals can vary significantly, so call around to a few different hospitals to find the lowest-cost option if you can.
  • Read your bill when it arrives and check for errors. Make sure you weren’t overcharged for time that you were in the waiting room rather than being treated, for procedures or tests that weren’t performed, or for pillows and blankets that should have been included in the room charge. You can also try to negotiate a lower bill with the provider; they will often accommodate. If you need help learning how to negotiate medical bills, consider contacting a medical billing advocate to help you figure out if your bill is fair and accurate.

Emergency room photo courtesy of Shutterstock.