As of late 2019, there are over 9000 Urgent Care centers across the United States. These centers handle about 89 million patient visits each year. This rapid growth is being fueled by a fundamental shift in how people are approaching their own healthcare.
As medical treatment itself becomes segmented into a more distributed network of healthcare, patients for their part increasingly place high value on no waiting, quick appointments, low cost, and overall a more retail-like experience. And especially for Millennials who haven’t yet affiliated with a primary care physician, the walk-in, service on demand model of the urgent care facility seems natural.
Studies indicate that a patient may pay up to 10 times more for the same services at the ER versus an Urgent Care center. For instance, treatment for a UTI averaged $1313 to $1669 at the Emergency Room. At the local Urgent Care, that treatment had an average cost of $149.
This dramatic price difference stems from the difference in focus of the two types of facility. The ER is geared toward dealing with extreme cases, and is equipped with very expensive, state-of-the-art equipment. A comprehensive staff is on hand 24-7, to deal with any emergency that comes through the door. An ER can handle non-emergency cases as well – but this will cost the patient at the emergency-level.
Urgent Care facilities tend to specialize more in episodic, preventive and remedial treatments rather than emergency life-saving. While they offer extended hours into the evening and through weekends, they don’t have to field a 24-hour service. And experience suggests that this is not necessary, since little more than 2 percent of urgent care visits ever need to be referred to the emergency room.
Urgent cares do, however, offer a wide range of diagnosis and treatment, and they can usually offer more services than primary care offices, for example by splinting fractures, stitching wounds, running intravenous drips, and more – as well as offering convenient and affordable tests and check-ups.
And while all urgent cares will operate under the supervision of a medical officer, a branch may be led routinely by a nurse-practitioner or physician assistant on staff. These elements all combine to offer a cost-effective medical solution for a large and growing segment of the population.
Curiously, it is the emergency room that often entails hours of waiting for a patient, while the urgent care visit, with typically less urgent needs, has made its mark for almost no waiting, and offering a model that welcomes simply showing up and walking in. (COVID-19 has placed a layer of screening and door-keeping on this of course, as with everything, but the model remains the same.) According to the UCA’s 2018 Benchmarking Report, 94% of patients at an Urgent Care center were seen in less than half an hour, and 85% were discharged in under an hour from entering.
Expeditious diagnosis can be argued as one of the most key ingredients in effective medical attention. As Dr. Gregory Blomquist, Chief Medical Officer with CommunityMed Family Urgent Care, an urgent care network in Texas, advises: “With any condition that you’re not completely certain of, whether for you or a family member, it always pays to get prompt diagnosis – which allows treatment to begin as quickly and effectively as possible.”
As stated, Millennials tend not to have a primary care physician, and for many of the younger generation an urgent care center may be their first adult experience with medical treatment, perhaps even becoming the standard in their mind. Boomers are more likely to have affiliation with a primary care office, but as they retire and age, many are exercising their new-found Medicare benefits at their local urgent care center for non-life-threatening and non-chronic conditions, placing value on the convenience and cost.
Seniors are increasingly opting to age in place in their homes, becoming the center of their distributed medical care network, and remaining socially active even as they become more physically frail over the years. Technology now offers a host of wearable electronic devices to act as reminders, alert mechanisms, and with the rise of AI, even as companions. And caregivers and physicians are increasingly adopting remote technologies.
Many urgent care centers are exploring telehealth, offering remote video conferencing with a specialist, for example. Telehealth was already on the rise, but the pandemic focused attention on this burgeoning field. Now patients can conference not only with a doctor in a remote location, but also from their own home, not even needing to attend the medical office.
Urgent care centers, with their relatively nimble service model, are forging ahead with new offerings, even as the rest of the medical profession hastens to follow and catch up to their lead. Urgent cares are increasingly appearing in rural areas, which have been the least served by the new distributed model. And they’re expanding their range of services, moving even into pediatric care, long established as a preserve of primary care.
Urgent cares typically bridge the space between primary care and the emergency room, and each is of principal importance in its core fields. Emergency rooms would actually be glad to be relieved of non-emergency cases, and urgent cares are rapidly taking over that load. Urgent Care centers fit the needs of busy working people with limited funds who might not otherwise seek medical services.