Rise of Urgent Care Centers: Healthcare’s Boom Town

Eric McDonald
Eric McDonald

Guest post by Eric McDonald, founder and CEO, DocuTap.

Expediency, exceptional service and a reasonable price. It’s the ideal for American consumers, particularly in healthcare. Because of that demand, patients were the drivers behind the adoption of the urgent care industry.

It started in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Family practices started taking walk-in patients. While it wasn’t branded as such, that was the inception of urgent care. Since then, the urgent care industry has morphed into what it is today – a walk-in facility with extended hour service for adults and children with acute illnesses and injuries. But, that definition doesn’t do urgent cares justice. Urgent cares are setting the tone for what healthcare consumers want. They want unscheduled appointments, they want stellar service, they want a location that’s easy to find with accessible parking, they want distinguishable amenities, and they want the cost to be lower and more transparent.

There are approximately 9,000 urgent care centers in operation, according to the Urgent Care Association of America. The UCAOA’s 2012 Urgent Care Benchmarking Study concludes that urgent care centers see three million visits per week, totaling more than 160 million visits annually. The urgent care industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. With roughly two clinics opening every day, it’s expected there will be 15,000 urgent care centers by 2019.

With the boom in the urgent care space, some in the healthcare industry are concerned about the flow of patient information. Considering urgent care visits are typically one-offs, some patient information isn’t getting back to the primary care providers and health systems as it should. However, the healthcare industry is making strides to combat this through technology, interfaces, federal initiatives, and health systems partnering with urgent cares.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 129.8 million people go to the emergency room annually. Many of those patients could have just as easily been seen in an urgent care. On average, those people would have spent $784 less and saved nearly three hours by going to an urgent care center (UCAOA 2012 Urgent Care Benchmarking Study). Those statistics are why many health systems are realizing the need to get into urgent care. Despite that, hospitals historically haven’t been as successful at running urgent care centers. Hospitals use emergency room doctors at emergency room rates and often see urgent care as a feeder rather than an actual revenue stream. Instead of making 20 percent to 30 percent profit, the hospitals barely break even.

That’s why many major health systems are partnering with urgent care centers through an Independent Practice Association (IPA) or an Accountable Care Organization (ACO). The partnerships provide the hospital with further brand recognition, referrals, and the patient’s medical record. This also allows each specialty to concentrate on what they do best. In turn, the urgent care becomes part of the ecosystem of the health system. The IPA and ACO model is a win-win for both the health system and the urgent care. Many see these partnerships as the future of urgent care.

For entrepreneurs, the urgent care space is attractive. It caters to the entrepreneurial spirit — exceptional service is rewarded with relatively high profit margins. Private equity and corporate owned groups see urgent care centers as an opportunity. There’s also a high level of competitiveness. Urgent care centers are pushing health systems to give consumers what they want – price transparency, cost comparison, and a focus on patient experience. Quickly, the urgent care industry is changing the face of healthcare.

Big box retail chains also see healthcare as an attractive industry. But, keep in mind, retail chains only offer limited care for the most minor of illnesses, such as an earache or a sore throat. The providers at these stores are unable to suture, take an x-ray for a possible broken bone or provide ambulatory care. A licensed physician is not required to operate at these stores. Big box retail chains are not urgent care centers.

I don’t see the urgent care boom slowing down in the next five years. More and more specialties are adding urgent care to their names. And, urgent cares are beginning to offer specialty services such as pediatrics, chiropractic, family practice, occupation medicine, and physical therapy. Urgent care will continue to answer consumer demands. Expediency, exceptional service, and a reasonable price is what we all want. And, that’s what urgent care provides.

One comment on “Rise of Urgent Care Centers: Healthcare’s Boom Town”

Wow, 9,000 urgent care centers seems like a very large number. I have been to urgent care a few times in my life, but I never realized how many there actually were. It makes me feel safer knowing that there are so many.

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