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Published: April, 2006; Vol 2, Num 11

Is It an Emergency or Not?

Avoid ER for Faster Care at Lower Cost

From 1993 to 2003, the annual number of visits to hospital emergency rooms in the United States rose from 90 million to 113 million, an increase of 26 percent.

About 15 percent of emergency room cases in 2003 were considered “emergent” or needing to be seen in less than 15 minutes. Thirty-five percent were urgent or needing to be seen within 15-60 minutes. Non-emergency cases accounted for more than 30 percent of the visits.

“People without health insurance – and far too many Americans are in this group – have few options. They often wait until they’re desperate for care and head to the ER,” says Noel C. Borck, Management Co-Chairman of the LHSFNA and Executive Vice President of the NEA – the Association of Union Constructors. “But workers with health insurance do have options, and it is important to avoid going to the emergency room unless absolutely necessary.”

Emergency room care costs about six times more than the same care delivered in a doctor’s office. On average, patients spend a little over three hours in the emergency room, which includes the time spent with the physician, receiving other services such as laboratory tests and X-rays and just waiting. So, if it costs more money and takes longer, why do people go to the emergency room?

Sometimes, people are unsure about what to do. Other times, they just don’t want to wait for an appointment. Yet, primary care physicians can usually schedule same-day appointments for patients who believe they are having a medical emergency, and, for most conditions that cause people to go to the emergency room, even a same-day appointment is not necessary.

“As a rule of thumb, if you or your child is sick or injured, you should call or see your regular doctor whenever a new, non-emergency medical condition occurs,” says LHSFNA Health Promotion Division Director Mary Jane MacArthur. “This doctor is the one who has had contact with you, knows your medical history and can direct you to the most appropriate care for your condition. If you do not require immediate medical attention, your doctor will schedule an office appointment for you.”

Many communities now have urgent care centers that are open evenings and weekends when a doctor’s office is closed. For medical conditions such as upper respiratory infections, sore throats, ear aches, persistent fevers, minor injuries or other non-life-threatening conditions, an urgent care center can probably provide quicker treatment at a lower cost than is available at a hospital emergency room – where those with these kinds of conditions will have to wait until patients with real emergencies are treated.

Rising health care costs continue to plague all LIUNA health and welfare funds (see Health Care Cost Crisis Threatens Middle Class Life and related stories). Excessive emergency room use jeopardizes these funds with no real benefit for Laborers or their families.