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Where to go when you’re sick, besides the ER

Before you rush your child to the ER for an earache, consider your other options. You’ll save yourself time and money and still get the quality care you need.


By Barb Breher
July 31, 2017

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It’s 1 a.m. and your daughter is crying in pain with an earache. What do you do? Take it from me, it’s so tempting to follow your instincts and rush her to the nearest Emergency Room (ER). I can’t stand it when my kids are in pain. But is that the best choice? When you get the bill for that visit, I’m guessing you’ll be shocked by how much it cost to treat that earache.

Of course, when someone is in pain all you can think about is finding help fast. But if it’s not a life-threatening emergency you do have a few options that will probably save you both time and money.

5 Routes to treat an earache

When is the ER the wrong place to be?

A hospital ER sounds really fast, right? But if you’ve been there for something minor it can seem like forever before you get treated. People with serious injuries or illnesses are admitted before you, meaning you’ll wait longer to be seen by a doctor.

Not only that, but ER’s are built for emergencies – special equipment, bigger rooms, doctors with specialized training – expenses that all add up. Of course, you’ll be glad it’s there when you really need it, but fancy equipment isn’t going to help an earache go away faster. That’s why a call to your health plan’s nurse line, or a visit to an urgent care doctor or your primary physician makes more sense (and is a lot cheaper) for this situation.

What if it can’t wait?

What if it’s 1 a.m. and the ER is the only place that’s open? I’d still suggest calling a 24/7 nurse advice line first. Most health insurance plans and many clinics have one. A nurse can immediately assess the situation and tell you whether you should take your child in, or give you home remedies that will help get her through the night until she can see a doctor. Better yet, depending on the issue and the age of your child, you might want to try an online clinic for a prescription. Instead of going to the ER, you can run to the nearest all-night pharmacy.

Your best option

If it can wait, I usually recommend calling your primary doctor’s office in the morning. He or she knows you best, and most keep a few openings for same-day emergencies. If you can’t get in to see your doctor and you want to be seen in person, a convenience clinic (such as the ones inside retail stores, supermarkets or pharmacies), or an urgent care clinic (usually near your primary care clinic) is your next best option.

Still, every situation is unique. Speed and cost aren’t the only factors to consider when someone is hurting. I suggest making a list of nearby, in-network, urgent care and convenience care clinics, with their hours and phone numbers, as well as a nurse’s line phone number, and keeping that list handy or storing it in your phone. Bookmark or favorite an online health clinic, like virtuwell.com, in your computer or mobile device. Knowing your options is going to make it easier to find the right care, at the right price, right when you need it.

About Barb Breher

Barb Breher is a leader in the Member Services department at HealthPartners. She specializes in individual and family health plans. Barb loves helping members understand and use their coverage (it’s confusing!). When she’s not working, she loves relaxing and camping with her husband and two young daughters. Minnesota locals: she highly recommends Voyageurs National Park.

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