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ER or Instacare? Where to go for urgent health care needs

By Cara MacDonald, | Posted - Jan 31st, 2019 @ 9:36am

SALT LAKE CITY — During winter, Utah runs rampant with illnesses resulting from cold and flu season and injuries from skiing, ice skating, and sledding accidents. As urgent care centers flood with patients, Utahns are being encouraged to access the right care facilities to suit their needs at the least cost and time commitment possible.

A 2016 study by the Health Care Cost Institute revealed that the average cost of an emergency room visit in the U.S. is $1,322. A basic checkup at an Intermountain InstaCare, by contrast, is only $175. Intermountain’s Connect Care and the University of Utah's Virtual Visits both provide an even steeper discount by allowing people to speak with a clinician via a computer or mobile device for no more than $49.

Which option should people seek out for their urgent care needs?

Virtual urgent care

Accessible with a mobile device or computer, virtual urgent care is meant for common, low-level urgent needs and can be accessed on a 24-hour basis. Among these virtual providers are Intermountain's Connect Care and the University of Utah Hospital's Virtual Visits.

They frequently treat conditions including sinus pain, stuffy and runny noses, sore throats, urinary tract infections, eye infections, lower back pain, and bronchitis. If the virtual provider feels that the medical issue needs to be treated in person in order to be adequately addressed, the provider will then direct the patient to in-person care and waive the virtual visit fees.

This service costs $49 and is covered by most insurance plans, including Medicaid (not Medicare). The University of Utah's Virtual Visits are free with a University of Utah health plan and are comparable in cost with Connect Care without the health plan.


Providing both adult and pediatric care, common conditions that aren’t life-threatening are recommended for virtual care. Help is provided by nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, who are board-certified advanced practice clinicians. They can prescribe all medications aside from controlled substances, though they do not provide lab services, imaging, or other tests.

Urgent care centers

Licensed physicians and specialized staff at urgent care centers like Intermountain’s Instacare are able to handle non-life-threatening urgent care needs, from sore throats to broken bones. Mountain Star Healthcare and the University of Utah also provide a variety of urgent care locations around the state offering help seven days per week with no appointments required.

Cost varies based on treatments provided, but urgent care clinics are generally covered by most insurance plans including Medicare and Medicaid. The staff is able to handle common, non-life-threatening conditions, and they can prescribe medication as needed. They are also able to offer lab services, X-rays, and some outpatient testing.

These services can be accessed at physical locations, which generally open at 8 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. Some have extended hours until as late as midnight. KidsCare facilities are generally open from 4 or 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Intermountain’s website lists InstaCare and KidsCare locations along with estimated wait times at each one, and the University of Utah's website shows the locations and hours of their urgent care centers.

Learn more about when to visit an urgent care center rather than an ER here.

Emergency Room

Open 24/7, emergency rooms are staffed with a team of specialized doctors, nurses and technicians who are able to care for severe or life-threatening conditions. Costs vary based on treatments, but emergency rooms are covered by all insurance plans in emergency situations (including Medicare and Medicaid). Intermountain emergency rooms are the most populous in Utah, though the University of Utah has emergency rooms at their Salt Lake City hospital and in South Jordan and Mountain Star healthcare has ER options as well.

Limb, functional, or life-threatening conditions are recommended to visit the emergency room, and care is provided by board-certified staff who can prescribe medication, offer all lab services, provide X-rays, engage in specialized care, and perform inpatient and outpatient tests.

Any of these warning signs will warrant a trip to the ER, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians:

  • Chest pressure or pain

  • Severe pain or injury to the head

  • Severe bleeding

  • Sudden or severe pain

  • Coughing blood or vomiting blood

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

  • Sudden dizziness, weakness, or changes in vision

  • Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea

  • Changes in mental status, such as confusion or weakness

  • Evaluation of an assault, physical or sexual abuse, or child abuse

  • Severe infection

  • Early pregnancy complications

  • Severe abdominal pain or persistent vomiting

For more instances in which to visit the emergency room, visit this link.

“Intermountain’s urgent care website can help people get better care, faster, for the lowest possible cost,” Mark Ott, MD, medical director of Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, said in a recent Intermountain news release. “Many of the conditions that bring people to our advanced-level emergency department could have been handled at their local Intermountain hospital, InstaCare, or primary care doctor’s office. We’re sharing this information because we want to help people get the very best health care as close to home and for the least cost possible.”

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