Residents in Round Rock and Pflugerville have had a new resource to turn to in an emergency in recent years—freestanding emergency rooms.

A freestanding emergency room, or emergency center, provides licensed and state-regulated emergency services to patients during times of acute illness or trauma.

In Texas, the concept of freestanding emergency rooms was first seen in Houston and Dallas, but the number of these facilities are on the rise in the Austin area, said Brad Shields, executive director of the Texas Association of Freestanding Emergency Centers.

“They have become quite prevalent across the state in the last few years, and I think a lot of that has to do with the need for quality and timely access to emergency care,” Shields said. “The traditional experience in the hospital ER can be that you wait hours to see a doctor and are either discharged or admitted. Now the process is convenient, and it’s in your neighborhood.”

Freestanding ERs are required to remain open 24 hours a day and seven days a week; have board-certified, licensed physicians on staff at all times; and have equipment such as an X-ray machine and a CT scanner as well as a full on-site laboratory.

Freestanding types

There are different categories of facilities among freestanding ERs. Freestanding facilities that are independently owned by physicians or investors cannot run under a hospital license. They must apply for a license through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Area locations of Five Star ER and First Choice Emergency Room are independently owned and operated and not associated with a hospital system. Round Rock Family Emergency Room is currently under construction on A.W. Grimes Boulevard and is expected to open in 2016. It is independently owned and operated as well.

Another category of freestanding ERs is hospital-owned emergency centers. St. David’s Emergency Center-Pflugerville operates under the regulations of the St. David’s hospital system and is the only such hospital-owned facility in Round Rock or Pflugerville. It is an extension of St. David’s North Austin Medical Center.

St. David’s NAMC CEO Allen Harrison said the benefits of using a freestanding ER are numerous.

“I think there are some pretty significant benefits, starting with the assurance that the patients know they are getting the same level of care at that facility, just like they’d receive if they were to come to a hospital,” Harrison said. “It can also help to reduce the wait times seen in the big, busy emergency rooms.”

Marysol Imler, vice president of operations at Five Star ER in Pflugerville, said patients need to educate themselves about the specifics of their insurance plan and know what is and is not covered to determine if they can afford the services provided at a freestanding ER.

“One thing freestanding ERs have really worked on is to be more transparent in their billing,” Imler said.

Imler said the physician’s primary focus is not the financial aspect of a patient’s care, but Five Star ER does provide financial counselors to work with patients to understand what the financial effect is for their treatments.

“Unfortunately, the No. 1 reason some people have bad credit is because of medical bills,” she said. “That’s one thing we do as an industry is try to educate the public on billing and how it works.”