Inside the current urgent care ‘boom’

Urgent care centers have become increasingly popular among patients in recent years. And while the facilities may be a more convenient care option than others, experts have voiced concerns about potential downsides, Nathaniel Meyersohn writes for CNN.

What is driving the urgent care ‘boom’?

Urgent care centers have been in the United States since the 1970s, but they were widely regarded as “docs in a box,” with slow growth in their early years. Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for tests and treatments drove an increase in patients at urgent care sites around the country. According to the Urgent Care Association (UCA), patient volume at urgent care centers has increased by 60% since 2019.

As patient volumes and demand increased, growth for new urgent care centers surged. Currently, there are a record 11,150 urgent care centers in the United States, with around 7% growth annually, UCA said. Notably, this figure excludes clinics inside retail stores and freestanding EDs.

According to estimates from IBISWorld, the urgent care market will reach roughly $48 billion in revenue in 2023, a 21% increase from 2019.

Urgent care has grown rapidly because of convenience, gaps in primary care, high costs of emergency room visits, and increased investment by health systems and private-equity groups,” Meyersohn writes.

Urgent care center growth also “highlights the crisis in the US primary care system,” Meyersohn writes, noting that the Association of American Medical Colleges said it expects a shortage of up to 55,000 primary care physicians in the next decade.

In addition, it can be difficult to book an immediate visit with a primary care provider. Urgent care sites have longer hours during the week and are open on weekends, making it easier to get an appointment. According to UCA, roughly 80% of the U.S. population is within a 10-minute drive of an urgent care center.

“There’s a need to keep up with society’s demand for quick turnaround, on-demand services that can’t be supported by underfunded primary care,” said Susan Kressly, a retired pediatrician and fellow at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Meanwhile, health insurers and hospitals have also prioritized keeping people out of the ED. In the early 2000s, they started opening their own urgent care sites and implementing strategies to deter ED visits.

The passage of the Affordable Care Act also triggered an increase in urgent care providers, with millions of newly insured Americans accessing healthcare.

In addition, data from PitchBook suggests that private-equity and venture capital funds invested billions into deals for urgent care centers.

“If they can make it a more convenient option, there’s a lot of revenue here,” said Ateev Mehrotra, a professor of healthcare policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School who has researched urgent care clinics. “It’s not where the big bucks are in health care, but there’s a substantial number of patients.”

The increase in urgent care sites may present challenges

Many doctors, healthcare advocates, and researchers have voiced concerns at the increase in urgent care sites, noting that there are potential downsides.

“Frequent visits to urgent care sites may weaken established relationships with primary care doctors,” Meyersohn writes. “They can also lead to more fragmented care and increase overall health care spending, research shows.”

In addition, some experts have questioned the quality of care at urgent care centers, particularly how well they serve low-income communities.

In a 2018 study by Pew Charitable Trusts and CDC, researchers found that urgent care centers overprescribe antibiotics, especially those used to treat common colds, the flu, and bronchitis.

“It’s a reasonable solution for people with minor conditions that can’t wait for primary care providers,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University. “When you need constant management of a chronic illness, you should not go there.”

Some doctors and researchers also expressed concern that patients are visiting urgent care centers instead of a primary care provider altogether.

“What you don’t want to see is people seeking a lot [of] care outside their pediatrician and decreasing their visits to their primary care provider,” said Rebecca Burns, the urgent care medical director at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

There are also concerns about the oversaturation of urgent care centers in higher-income areas that have more consumers with private health care and limited access in medically underserved areas,” Meyersohn writes.

A 2016 study from the University of California at San Francisco found that urgent care centers typically do not serve rural areas, areas that have a high concentration of low-income patients, or areas that have a low concentration of privately-insured patients.

According to the researchers, this “uneven distribution may potentially exacerbate health disparities.” 

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