(NewsUSA) - With health costs rising steadily, it may seem impossible -- but it's true -- five simple questions can help anyone make big cuts in their health care costs while improving care at the same time, whether they have health insurance or not.

Surveys show that health care costs are rising about 6 percent annually. This is true for those with high deductibles as well as the uninsured. Consumers are starting to realize that choosing the right kind of care at the right place can have a big impact on their bill.

The Journal of the American Medical Association found that an unnecessary visit to an emergency room could cost eight times more than going to a doctor's office. Research found that close to 50 percent of visits to the emergency room are unnecessary and that patients could have been treated at a doctor's office. Blue Cross and Blue Shield reports that the average charge at the emergency room is $1,024. This drops to $194 at the urgent care center, and all the way to $140 at the doctor's office.

Medical experts agree that informed patients save money and time by making better decisions. However, deciding when and where to go for care can be challenging. "Ideally, you want to select the most inexpensive location that is also qualified to treat your problems," says Dr. Stephen J. Schueler, MD, an emergency room specialist.

Before heading off to a health care provider for an illness or injury, ask yourself these five questions:

- What might be causing your symptoms?
- Is this an emergency?
- Can you take care of the problem yourself?
- What kind of treatment is required?
- What is the appropriate care facility?


Now there is a Web site that answers these important questions for free. At FreeMD.com, consumers visit a virtual doctor, who asks questions and pinpoints the problem. FreeMD explains what treatment is required and where to get it: an emergency room, an urgent care center, or a doctor's office. When possible, FreeMD provides instructions on how to treat a problem at home.

The technology powering FreeMD has helped nurses in the Veterans Health Administration determine where to send patients for care.