As an alternative to emergency rooms or even a primary care physician, urgent care centers are rapidly growing in popularity but there is often confusion as to exactly what urgent care is and what services are provided. At their most basic, urgent care centers provide walk-in, extended hour access for acute illness and injury care that is either beyond the scope or availability of the typical primary care practice or not serious enough to warrant treatment in an ER. They sit in the middle of the medical services spectrum between a primary care physician and an emergency room and help alleviate pressure on both by providing care for patients whose primary care doctor is not available and reserving the nation’s emergency room resources for more serious, life-threatening conditions. Patients typically seek treatment at an urgent care center for minor injuries and illnesses like fevers, upper respiratory infections, sprains and strains, lacerations, contusions, and back pain. Most of these centers have the resources to treat minor fractures, administer intravenous fluids, and process a few lab tests. Each center offers slightly different services, so it’s well advised to verify with the clinic before seeking care, but all of these services and consultations are available without an appointment and most types of insurances are accepted.
For patients with minor medical issues, urgent care centers offer a great way to obtain convenient access to medical care without having to wait for hours in an emergency room, or several days to schedule an appointment at their primary care doctor. While there is no official count, it is generally accepted that there are close to 9,000 urgent care clinics located throughout the United States. That means for most patients, a clinic is located near them, and in large cities, there will be many different options available. Many of these health care facilities offer their services during evening and even weekend hours as way to help patients who need to seek care outside of regular business hours. These centers are typically staffed with physicians with a support nursing staff, or may have physician assistants as well. Some centers have even begun focusing solely on pediatric care, offering the pediatric specialty in a walk-in setting. However, the main reason for the popularity of urgent care centers is their cost effectiveness and affordability.
A recent trend in the medical industry has seen more and more investor-owned companies, private equity and other financiers move into the urgent and immediate care business. Previously this had generally been the domain of entrepreneurial doctors who set out on their own and found the urgent care model to be an easier way to directly interact with patients than establishing their own private practice. The shift to larger corporate entities has been a result of the pressure applied on hospitals from lawmakers, and insurance companies to treat patients in less costly outpatient care settings. Urgent care centers can provide an equivalent high level of care, with the cost-efficiency and convenience benefits sought by all parties. By limiting their scope of treatment to nonlife-threatening illnesses or injuries, these centers don’t need some of the most expensive equipment used by hospitals, and thus can keep costs down. As a result, the co-pay for a visit to an urgent care clinic is usually less than a visit to an emergency room.
For all these reasons, their hours of operations, numerous locations, quality medical services and affordable costs, urgent care centers are considered to be one of the best new sources of available health care. Patients can expect a high quality of care with well qualified doctors at a center that’s located close to them while saving money and freeing up emergency resources for better use.