3 Key Factors Drive Rapid Growth of Urgent Care Centers

Consumer demand for convenient access to care for illnesses and injuries is driving the rapid growth of urgent care centers across the country, according to a new qualitative study by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) for the nonpartisan, nonprofit National Institute for Health Care Reform (NIHCR).

And while the centers are emerging as alternative care settings that help improve care and accessibility, there is still doubt as to whether they actually help to contain costs, researchers find.

According to the study, there are now 9,000 urgent care centers across the six communities studied — Detroit; Jacksonville, Fla.; Minneapolis; Phoenix; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and San Francisco. Three key factors are driving the surge:

  • Access to care. Urgent care centers fill a gap by providing walk-in care, especially during evening and weekend hours, when primary care physician (PCP) offices are generally closed, for patients unable to schedule a PCP appointment during weekday hours, or for those patients without a PCP.
  • Care coordination. Urgent care centers do not significantly disrupt existing relationships with PCPs or coordination of patient care. One reason is that many patients have acute needs that can be handled in isolation from other healthcare needs or conditions.
  • Cost savings. Despite the perception that urgent care centers save money by diverting patients away from costly emergency departments (EDS), the impact of urgent care centers on healthcare costs remains unclear.

    In the past, urgent care centers were often independently owned, standalone facilities, but the healthcare landscape has changed considerably, according to the study. Large urgent care center chains operate in some regions, and hospital systems are establishing urgent care centers to expand their service area and referral base. More recently, health insurers are partnering with or establishing urgent care centers as a strategy to control spending growth by shifting some care from EDs to lower-cost urgent care centers.

    Although some providers believe urgent care centers disrupt coordination and continuity of care, others believe these concerns may be overstated, given urgent care’s focus on episodic and simple conditions, rather than chronic and complex cases, the study found.

    Source: The Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC), July 11, 2013

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    27 Interventions to Reduce Avoidable ER Use describes 27 separate initiatives launched by Kaiser and WellPoint around the country that are effectively reducing avoidable emergency department use and redirecting patients to more cost-effective care venues.

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