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Why is the emergency room so expensive?

March 18, 2015
emergency sign above emergency room entrance

When was the last time you experienced sticker shock? Did you have your heart set on a convertible before you saw what it'd cost to sign on the bottom line, only to find it worth several thousand dollars more than you were expecting? If you have kids approaching the end of high school, just the thought of tuition payments might make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

There's a worse place still to experience sticker shock, and it just happens to be the one location where money should be the furthest thing from your mind: the emergency room. You might be no stranger to $100 bandages and hidden fees that only come up when the bill's due, but you should do a little research to find out why going to the emergency room can cost you an arm and a leg - and why CareWell's urgent care centers can be affordable alternatives.

ERs treat serious injuries, but at a steep cost.
ERs treat serious injuries, but at a steep cost.

ERs and the kitchen sink
Part of the reason a simple trip to the ER can turn into a thousand-dollar affair is in the name: emergency.

Because ERs are obligated to accept patients as quickly and efficiently as possible, they need to staff as many clinicians as possible to cover any potential uptick in visits. This drives up operating costs - unlike a regular business that can send employees home to lower expenses, ERs can't risk halving their staff on duty when a major health event occurs.

In addition to paying a full compliment of staff almost around the clock, ERs need to purchase, maintain, repair and upgrade all the expensive diagnostic and surgical equipment they use to rapidly treat patients. Imagine if your primary care physician needed to have all the tools on hand to treat fractures, perform X-rays, remove debris from wounds and so much more. Not only would there be a smaller waiting room the next time you show up for an appointment, but your physician would have to start charging you more to pay for all his fancy new medical tools.

"One California ER charges $154 for a neck brace that retails at no more than $20."

The $500 stitch
You can buy a needle and thread for pennies, but The New York Times explained that something funny happens to routine treatments provided in ERs - they tend to cost dozens of times more than they should. The source points out numerous examples where a handful of stitches costs patients upwards of $3,300 in some cases.

But why does this happen? With such a large overhead from the need to staff emergency personnel and the cost required to install and maintain advanced clinical support tools, patients with minor injuries end up covering the cost of the more sophisticated machinery they didn't even need. The source noted that the California Pacific Medical Center charges roughly $154 for a neck brace that retails at no more than $20 - it's not that hospitals can't price their products directly, but rather that they need to bring in as much revenue as possible to keep pace with their soaring expenses.

Don't get wrapped up in the financial wormhole of ERs - check out your local CareWell urgent care center the next time you need to get patched up.

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