- Urgent care centers are convenient, on-demand care outlets similar to walk-in retail clinics, but are equipped to treat more serious ailments, including fractures, sprains, and wounds.
- Urgent care centers can serve as a first step in the patient journey as well by referring patients to follow-up appointments or ERs.
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What are urgent care clinics?
Urgent care centers are convenient, on-demand care outlets similar to walk-in retail clinics, but rather than treating low-acuity conditions such as bronchitis and minor infections, urgent care clinics are equipped to treat more serious ailments, including fractures, sprains, and wounds. They also offer services like blood tests, stitching, and X-rays.
Urgent care centers can serve as a first step in the patient journey as well by referring patients to follow-up appointments or ERs. Though they should not be used for life-threatening emergencies, urgent care clinics provide easy access to quality healthcare for times when your primary care doctor is unavailable.
The urgent care market & business model
According to Consumer Reports, the number of urgent care facilities increased from 6,400 in 2014 to 8,100 in 2018, with another 500 to 600 expected to open. Some 24/7 urgent care centers function like satellite emergency rooms, and incur similar healthcare costs, while other centers simply charge copays.
Generally speaking, an urgent care visit is a money-saver for patients. A 2016 study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine found that ER treatment costs were about 10 times more (an average of about $2,200) than in an urgent care center (about $168) — even for patients with the same diagnosis.
Because of the overlap urgent care centers have with family medicine and emergency medicine, they are typically staffed accordingly with at least one medical physician or specialist, as well as a physician assistant, nurse practitioner, or radiologist available to see patients any time the facility is open.
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Urgent care staffing models
Henry Schein Medical cites three major urgent care center staffing models:
- Physician Only: The most expensive model that uses no mid-level practitioners. However, it could be the most cost effective options for new centers building their patient base.
- Mixed Model: A balance of physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners for centers increasing in patient volume.
- Mid-Level Model: Centers staffed entirely by mid-level staff. This option is suitable for low acuity cases, but may not be equipped to handle more complex patient needs.
Top Urgent Care Providers & Companies
Urgent care clinics aren’t necessarily run by traditional hospitals or health systems. In fact, 61% of urgent care clinics in Massachusetts are owned by non-hospital urgent care chains, per a 2018 Massachusetts Health Policy Commission report.
Some of the largest US urgent care operators include:
- American Family Care
- City MD
- Fast Med
- HCA CareNow
- Patient First
- U.S. Healthworks
Urgent care industry trends & statistics
Interest in the on-demand, affordable care of urgent care clinics—particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic—has been growing rapidly. According to the Urgent Care Association (UCA), the total number of urgent care centers in the U.S. reached 8,774 in November 2018 — up eight percent from 8,125 in 2017.
Laurel Stoimenoff, PT, CHC, CEO of UCA, says that urgent care clinics handle about 89 million patient visits each year, which includes more than 29% of all primary care visits in the US, and nearly 15% of all outpatient physician visits.
And nearly all of those visits are more convenient and affordable than a trip to the ER; the UCA’s 2018 Benchmarking Report found that more than 70% of patients waited less than 20 minutes to see a provider at an urgent care center, and nearly 94% were seen in less than 30 minutes. Overall, 85% of urgent care centers patients are taken care of in under an hour.
“Urgent care centers play an increasingly vital role in the continuum of care, providing services for a wide array of patients who may be unable to see a primary care physician for various reasons, including simply not yet affiliating with one,” said Stoimenoff.
Consumer demand for hyper-convenient care has reached a fever pitch, especially among younger cohorts. Nearly one-quarter of millennials haven’t visited a primary care physician (PCP) in five years or more, with about one-third saying that going to get a physical isn’t convenient, per a 2019 Harmony Healthcare IT survey. That’s why we’re seeing more younger patients opt for medical care as well as walk-in appointments for real-time needs such as covid testing.