Make Informed Health Decisions, Part 2 – Access


An empty waiting room holds the promise of an in-and-out office visit.

What would life be like if we could schedule our sick days ahead of time? Monday morning traffic would probably be a lot lighter, that’s for sure. If we could choose when we were sick, most of us would choose an unobtrusive day, with nothing else planned, when we could squeeze right into our doctor’s schedule and get on the road to recovery as soon as possible. (Alternatively, we would schedule our illness as a convenient excuse to get out of something even more unpleasant – like your ex’s wedding.)

Unfortunately, illness and injury have no sense of timing, and can strike any time, even on the coveted weekend. All of us at one point or another will need some medical TLC…so where’s the best place to go? Fortunately, we have options!

In Case of Emergency – the ER

Strengths: open 24/7/365, team expertise, access to diagnostics

Drawbacks: for non-emergencies, it’s expensive and the wait can be long

The emergency room is for just that – emergencies. If a patient is in crisis, this is the place to be, with a team prepped and ready for just about anything. However, it really may not be appropriate for less urgent visits. For one thing, ER visits tend to be more expensive –  many insurance plans, for example, have ER copays in the hundreds. For another, the ER takes cases based on severity, so if your case is less emergent, you’re probably going to wait longer. In general, it’s best to save the ER for potentially life-threatening emergencies or conditions that may require hospital-specific treatment (like surgery).

Doctor’s Office

Strengths: can build a doctor-patient relationship, trust and familiarity

Drawbacks: busier practices have waits for appointments, may be closed evenings or weekends

Having a doctor who knows you and your health history is a great thing for your health. These doctors have a leg up on detecting patterns in your health that others might not recognize. However, depending on how busy the practice is, you may have to wait days, weeks, or even months to get an appointment. The cost of your doctor’s visit can also vary dramatically depending on your insurance status, and usually doctor’s offices don’t display prices up front.

Retail Clinics

Strengths: convenience, lower cost, often open evenings and weekends

Drawbacks: usually limited to more common and less severe issues

These are the little clinics that live in your grocery store or pharmacy. They’re quick, convenient, and walk-ins are welcome (though many take appointments, too). Most often, you’ll be able to find out the cost of your visit up front, and it’s usually the least expensive option for preventive care or treating common ailments. Retail clinics are great for those pesky, non-urgent medical complaints that pop up at inconvenient times, but they are limited in the scope of what they can treat. Bonus: if there’s an adjacent pharmacy, you can get your prescription and fill it all in the same place.

Urgent Care Clinics

Strengths: usually open weekends and provide after-hours care, can treat most non-emergencies

Drawbacks: walk-ins may have a wait, not for emergencies

When it’s not an emergency but you don’t want to wait for an appointment with your doctor, you can visit the urgent care clinic. These clinics can treat a wider range of conditions than the retail clinics, for a price that usually falls somewhere between the low cost of a the retail clinic and the higher cost of an ER visit. Some experts recommend visiting an urgent care center that is affiliated with the hospital where your primary care doctor has privileges, for ease of transferring your medical records.


Want to learn about assessing the quality of a provider? Check out Freedom to Choose: Make Informed Health Decisions, Part 1 – Quality.