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Offsite Health Care Options

If you have a nasty cut on your finger, need surgery, or have the flu and want immediate treatment, where do you go for care?

Traditionally, you'd head for the hospital or your doctor’s office. Now you have more choices. Many forms of emergency treatment take place outside the emergency room, and even many surgeries are performed in locations other than a hospital operating room.

Where you choose to be treated will make a difference not only in terms of convenience, but also in the cost of your care.

Here’s a primer on some of the offsite treatment facilities available to patients these days.

Urgent-care centers

Urgent-care centers provide medical care for conditions that require attention but that aren't an immediate, serious threat to life or health. They are not intended to provide emergency care. In many cases, they are like a walk-in doctor's office.

The big difference between an urgent-care facility and a regular doctor’s office is that you can walk in without an appointment.

Many people use these clinics as their primary doctor’s office. Others use them only for walk-in acute-care treatment for illnesses, cuts, burns, puncture wounds, fractures, bites, stings, sprains, and strains.

Advantages: Many urgent-care centers charge about the same as or a little more than a doctor’s office, but they may be only half the cost of the hospital emergency room, with far less waiting time. Many offer convenient on-site laboratory work or X-rays. Some also fill prescriptions. You typically won’t find yourself shoulder to shoulder with victims of violent crime, and you’re not competing with ambulance patients for the doctor’s time. The centers stay open later than most doctors’ offices, and some are open nearly every day of the year. If you need more care than they can provide, they’ll get you to an emergency room quickly.

Disadvantages: If you’re not a regular patient at the urgent-care center, your records won’t be on file. The staff won’t be as familiar with your medical history as your primary care physician. Walk-ins often have a longer wait than a scheduled appointment at their own doctors’ offices. Some urgent-care centers don’t accept health insurance from certain carriers, so be sure to confirm your coverage in advance.

Ambulatory surgery centers

If surgery is in your future, ask your doctor if outpatient (ambulatory) surgery is an option. Improved technology and pain control and less-invasive procedures allow many surgeries to be done in a doctor’s office, outpatient clinic, or ambulatory surgery center. These procedures include hernia repair, cosmetic surgery, gallbladder removal, and tonsillectomy.

Advantages: You avoid a hospital stay and get to recover in the comfort and privacy of your own home. You receive high-quality care at far less cost than at a hospital. Operations are more likely to be on schedule. Complications are rare. If they do occur, the ambulatory surgery center has a backup plan for transferring patients to a hospital.

Disadvantages: Not all patients or procedures are eligible for outpatient surgery.

Keep in mind, if you have a true emergency such as symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, or a serious cut or injury, don’t hesitate to go to the emergency room. That’s what it’s there for. But when an injury or illness is less pressing, take some time to review your options. Often, a medical self-care guide can help you make a decision.

Retail store sites

These are small medical offices within pharmacies that are part of certain large retail stores. The medical experts on hand are usually nurse practitioners or physician assistants.

Advantages: Because the office is located in a store setting, you usually can do your shopping while you wait your turn for care. Prices usually are on display, so you know upfront what any charges will be.

Disadvantages: These sites have no doctor and only limited equipment. Because the offices are within a pharmacy, your option for treatment may be medication even when other possibilities exist.

Making a decision

Serious, life-threatening injuries or conditions are medical emergencies and should be treated in a hospital emergency room. For less pressing urgent care, be sure to check with your insurance plan to find out which of the above facilities is covered before you go to one.