If you’ve ever made a frantic drive to the emergency department with an injured loved one in tow (or been that loved one yourself), then you know the anxiety that comes with a medical emergency.
Unfortunately, hospital trip stress extends beyond health concerns. Even a quick hospital stay, if unexpected, can cost a small fortune. That’s why doing your homework ahead of time is so vital. Understanding what could cause these trips may help you prepare — or avoid them entirely.
Here’s a look at five of the most common reasons for an unplanned hospital visit.
1. Difficulty Breathing
Trouble breathing can have many underlying causes — asthma, an allergic reaction or even a heart condition or collapsed lung — and it warrants a trip to the emergency department. Shortness of breath might appear alongside symptoms like chest pain, nausea, blue-tinged lips or fainting.
At the hospital, you’ll probably undergo an exam, chest X-rays and lung function tests. But this potentially lifesaving visit could come with a high price tag, even with insurance. That’s because about two-thirds of emergency room docs are independent contractors, and they may not be covered by your insurance. They can bill you for out-of-network charges or balance bill you for anything beyond what your insurer pays.
2. Illness and Infection
Most minor illnesses and infections can (and should) be treated by your doctor. But when a sudden sickness seems severe and scary-looking symptoms like a blinding headache, wheezing or throat swelling appear, patients often head to the ER.
Considering that the cost of even an uncomplicated visit to the ER can reach the thousands, it’s worth knowing when it’s best to go to the ER vs. urgent care. Even with insurance, if you’re not admitted to the hospital you could be facing a $100 copay for an ER visit.
3. Accidents and Trauma
Everything from a car wreck to a fall, break, sprain or laceration is considered trauma. According to the National Safety Council, an American is injured every second and killed every three minutes by a preventable accident.
Even if you’re aware that ER costs can be through the roof, you may not know that some hospitals charge a “trauma fee,” the price for staffing physicians and keeping the lights on 24/7 — on top of the price of the care you receive. Trauma fees vary by hospital but often exceed $10,000, upping the price of your mishap exponentially.
A stroke happens when blood flow to the brain is cut off. Someone dies of a stroke every four minutes. Symptoms include weakness in one side of the body, confusion and blurred vision. Luckily, timely medical attention can generally stop a stroke and improve any disability caused by it. A stroke patient can expect to undergo an immediate exam, blood work and a CT scan.
The direct costs of heart disease and stroke in the U.S. increased from roughly $103 billion in 1996/1997 to more than $213 billion in 2014/2015. What’s more, a review of the economic burden of post-stroke care showed that the average U.S patient pays $4,850 in rehabilitation costs.
5. Chest Pain
Perceived symptoms of a heart attack — chest pressure or pain, neck or jaw pain, left-arm numbness, shortness of breath and nausea — are the top reason folks make the trip to their ER. It’s important to take chest pain seriously: Calling 911 and being seen immediately can save your life.
When you get to the hospital with heart attack symptoms, doctors will probably run tests to confirm your diagnosis and relieve pain. You’ll likely have a physical exam, possibly as well as an EKG, IV, blood tests, medication, oxygen and heart catheterization to open blocked arteries. If your condition turns out to be heart-related or another serious disorder, you may be admitted to the coronary care unit or intensive care unit. In the case that you didn’t have a heart attack, you’ll likely shell out $1,000 for these pricy tests and an overnight stay.
Preparing for the Unexpected
The point isn’t to avoid all medical emergencies — that’s impossible. And it’s definitely not to avoid seeking emergency care — that’s unwise and dangerous. But knowing what to anticipate at the ER may come in handy as you decide whether you need extra coverage in the form of a hospital indemnity, critical illness or accident insurance plan.
These plans act as an extra layer of protection, even if you have major medical coverage, that kicks in if you have a medical crisis or go to the hospital. They work by paying out lump sums for qualifying events and conditions — that’s money that can go toward anything, from paying medical bills to taking care of rent and child care. You may not be able to avoid an unexpected hospital stay, but knowing exactly what situation you’re walking into when you enter those ER doors can make a stressful situation a little easier.