When Should I Go to the ER?

Talor Bianchini
Talor Bianchini12 Dec 2022

If you are experiencing a serious change in your health or a medical emergency, you should consider visiting the emergency room. It's crucial to weigh all of your options because the cost of an ER visit is typically much higher than seeing an outpatient doctor. Some signs you may be in a medical emergency include trouble breathing, a broken bone, or a head injury. 

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When To Go To The Emergency Room 

Visiting the emergency room can be a tough call to make. When facing a medical emergency, you may be unsure if the ER is the right place to visit or if an alternative may be a better option. It's essential to listen to your body and assess your symptom severity. It will vary from person to person whether or not you should take a trip to the hospital. 

You should consider your risk factors and medical history when considering your symptoms and deciding whether to go to the emergency room. An ER trip may be more urgent if you have recently had surgery or have a preexisting medical condition. Below we break down some signs that you should visit the ER and when you should call 911. 

Signs You Should Visit The ER

If you or a loved one is experiencing the following, you should call 911 or immediately visit the closest emergency room. Symptoms of an emergency may include:

  • Passing out or fainting
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Deep wound
  • Serious burn
  • Coughing or throwing up blood
  • Severe allergic reaction
  • High fever that won’t get better with medicine
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Inhaled smoke or poisonous flames
  • Unusual or bad headache
  • Dizziness or weakness that won’t go away
  • Possible broken bone 
  • Overdose of drugs or alcohol

When to Call 911

Even if you have decided to go to the emergency room, you may be debating whether to drive yourself there or call 911. Although you may be scared to call 911, calling an ambulance is best if someone is experiencing a life-threatening medical condition, such as a heart attack or stroke. Medical providers will often start treatment on the way to the hospital, which could be life-saving. 

Some other medical situations in which you will want to call 911 immediately include:

  • Choking
  • Stopped breathing
  • Severe burn
  • A seizure lasting three to five minutes
  • Head injury leading to fainting, confusion, or dizziness
  • Injury to neck or spine
  • Electric shock
  • Bleeding that can’t be stopped
  • Eye injury
  • Sudden inability to speak, walk, or move

Emergency Room Alternatives 

The emergency room is not always the best option for your medical needs in less urgent situations. Visiting an alternative healthcare provider, like urgent care or primary care physician, can be a better option. 

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Urgent Care

Urgent care centers are a great alternative to the emergency room, especially if your problem requires timely medical attention. If the issue you face is not life-threatening, urgent care may be a better option. Especially if you are facing issues outside of your primary care doctor’s regular office hours, urgent care may be able to handle your medical needs. If an urgent care thinks you need more intense care, they will send you to the emergency room. 

Some conditions that may be appropriate for a visit to an urgent care clinic include:

One great benefit to going to an urgent care clinic instead of the emergency room is the difference in cost. Treatment in an emergency room can be up to two to three times the price of a typical provider’s visit. Some urgent care clinics even offer telehealth options for care so you can see a provider in the comfort of your own home without the long wait times. This option is typically less expensive than an in-person copay. 

Primary Care 

Another option when looking for medical care is to see your primary care physician. If you are experiencing a non-life-threatening medical situation, giving your doctor a call is always a great first step. They know your medical history well and can advise you on symptoms that may be unusual for your health or particular condition. 

Therefore, primary care or specialty doctor may be your best option if you are experiencing symptoms related to a medical condition you have already been diagnosed with. They will be able to suggest the best course of treatment and can use new information in addition to your medical history. A primary care physician is also an excellent option for colds, routine vaccinations, or a yearly checkup. 

Like urgent care, visiting a primary care provider is a cheaper option than going to the emergency room. However, without insurance, visiting the doctor can be expensive. You are usually charged a base provider fee and additional fees for services. If you are looking for ways to save on your health care costs, Mira provides low-cost virtual care to help with chronic conditions, prescription refills, and mental health services like therapy

How to Save Money at the ER

Sometimes, you don’t have the option to visit an alternative care option instead of the emergency room. Luckily, there are ways you can save, even on a trip to the hospital. 

1. Come Prepared

Before you head to the hospital, try to get together a list of all the medications you take daily, including vitamins and supplements. In addition, a list of anything you are allergic to and current medical records can help those assisting in your medical care tremendously. This information could prevent you from going through unnecessary testing, which could lead to additional charges on your medical bill. Decreasing the amount of time you are spending in the emergency room by having this information on hand will also save you money in the end. 

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2. Request an Itemized Bill

After your emergency room visit, you will receive a bill from the hospital highlighting your stay, as well as information from your insurance company. If the bill does not come itemized, make sure to call and request one. You will then be able to look at the charges line by line to determine any mistakes. Look for items you could have been double-billed for or tests that you did not receive. 

In addition to looking for errors, you can also dispute your bills once you have received them. You can call and complain about inaccuracies and ask for an explanation of the charges made. Because of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you only have 30 days after receiving the bill to dispute any claims, so make sure to review your statement quickly. 

3. Negotiate Medical Bills

Before or after receiving care, you can negotiate with the hospital. Especially for those paying without insurance, hospitals often offer discount programs to make their services more affordable. It's always better to ask to ensure you aren’t missing out on any possible cost-saving assistance. You may also opt to only agree to in-network charges if paying with insurance. 

Another option is to refuse care when at the hospital. Although you are not advised to refuse life-saving care, don't be afraid to speak up if you believe you are being subjected to unnecessary or repetitive testing. Ask questions, and understand all of the medications and services that are being given to you. If something seems odd or unnecessary, make sure to ask your healthcare provider. 

Bottom Line

Visiting the emergency room could be a life-saving option if you are experiencing a medical emergency. However, making an unnecessary visit to the ER could result in high medical bills and wasted time. Make sure to weigh out all your options before heading to the hospital, and consider your primary care doctor and urgent care as an alternative in less serious situations. Emergency rooms are an excellent option for head injuries, severe bleeding, symptoms of heart attack, and more. There are many ways you can save on your bill if the visit is necessary. 

Medical care can be expensive, but Mira offers an affordable way to manage your health. For an average of $45 a month, Mira members get up to 80 percent off over 1,000 different medications, low-cost virtual and urgent care, and same-day lab testing. Sign up today



Talor Bianchini

Talor graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Biobehavioral Health, and minors in Spanish and Diversity & Inclusion in May of 2022. She has a passion for health equity and diversity in health. In the future, Talor hopes to work in public health policy reform to help eliminate health disparities. She enjoys reading, cooking, and listening to podcasts in her free time.