The Rise of Urgent Care Centers

Recently, there has been a surge in urgent care centers as a result of consumer demand, but hospitals and health plans say they see the benefits as well.

Recently, there has been a surge in urgent care centers (UCCs) as a result of consumer demand. While some hospitals and health plans have encouraged the use of these centers, some providers believe they are costly, according to the Center for Studying Health System Change.

According to the report, written by Tracy Yee, Amanda E. Lechner and Ellyn R. Boukus, the convenient access of UCCs may be increasingly popular to both patients and health systems, especially considering the expected primary care physician shortage. The report examined the growth of UCCs in six communities: Detroit, Mich.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and San Francisco, Calif.

The six chosen communities have a high penetration of UCCs and varying levels of provider integration. While consumer demand for convenient access to care has driven the growth of UCCs (there are now 9,000 across the country), hospitals and health plans also see the benefits of UCCs.

Hospitals that own UCCs view them as a way to gain patients, while health plans believe UCCs contain costs by steering patients away from costly visits to emergency departments.

“Overall, respondents perceived that urgent care centers improve access to certain services for privately insured people without significantly disrupting care continuity, but respondents were uncertain about urgent care centers’ impact on costs,” Boukus said in a statement.

Respondents said that there is a lack of data to show whether UCCs has saved money by diverting patients from emergency departments. It’s also unclear whether or not UCCs have increased costs by drawing patients from primary care practices.

Interestingly, the UCCs in the study were in more populous, higher-income areas. The fact that UCCs require upfront payment is a barrier for low-income patients; however, coverage expansions under health reform may change that, according to the report.

“While independent UCCs may see little financial incentive to enter underserved areas and to treat Medicaid and uninsured patients, hospitals, which could gain financially, may be more likely to add UCCs as a way to decrease ED use,” the authors wrote.

A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Health Research Institute also noted that the venue of care is changing in America, moving from costly hospitals to affordable retail clinics and mobile health options.