By: Ashley Boudeau
October 10, 2013

AUSTIN -- The Austin Emergency Center (AEC) is not your average emergency room. But it is a fully equipped, 24-hour ER.


"They are basically emergency rooms that have been scooped out of the hospital setting and put in a strip mall, or wherever else," said Okemefuna Okpara, M.D., co-owner and practicing physician at AEC.

Doctor Okpara worked in hospital emergency rooms across the country, before opening two stand-alone emergency rooms this year. One is located on South Lamar Blvd. And the other is on Far West Blvd.

"It's built to the standards of traditional ERs. So it has everything that a hospital-based ER has: ER-trained doctors, ER-trained nurses, CAT scans, Ultrasound. X-rays," explained Okpara.

All without the long lines and wait times -- plus a Zen-like feel.

The concept is catching on. According to the American Hospital Association, the number of stand-alone ERs has doubled to more than 400 in the last four years. In the Austin area there are a handful of them. Some are even owned by hospitals, including the St. David's Emergency Centers.

"Within St. David's HealthCare, there's no difference between the free standing emergency departments and the emergency departments that are located at the hospitals," said Denise Bradley of St. David's HealthCare.

Wait times are shorter at stand-alone ER’s. But at St. David's, the cost of a regular ER visit and a stand-alone ER, are the same. Though traditionally, most stand-alone ERs cost less.

"Emergency rooms are expensive. Primarily because of something called a facility fee," explained Okpara. "It's the expense that goes into keeping the lights on and stocking all the emergency medications that we need to have in case an emergency does happen. And so the facility fee at hospital ER’s are generally higher."

However, people should remember that stand-alone ERs are still emergency rooms, which means an emergency room bill. Doctors say people often confuse stand-alone ERs with urgent care clinics. And while a doctor at a stand-alone ER will treat anyone, if you are not suffering from an emergency, you should see a primary care physician.

Some health care experts fear stand-alone ERs will cause the cost of health insurance to go up. Because people who are not having emergencies will mistakenly go into them. And under Texas law, insurance companies have to pay for emergency room visits.

Another factor is the level of care. While some hospitals would disagree, Okpara says the quality of care is better at a stand-alone facility because there are fewer patients.

But if you have suffered severe trauma, you should head to a hospital ER.

"I mean a serious motor vehicle accident, or penetrating trauma, referring to gunshot wounds or stab wounds," said Okpara. "You're probably better off being at a hospital-based ER because they have a trauma team and trauma surgeons, generally on call."

If you are taken to a stand-alone ER and need special care, they have transfer agreements with hospitals to admit you.

Austin Emergency Center will host an open house on Saturday, October 19, 2013 at 1:00 pm at the South Lamar location, 4015 S. Lamar Blvd, to answer questions about stand-alone ERs.

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