Urgent Care Centers: Emergency Department Alternative or Costly Convenience?

Urgent Care Emerges as Alternative Care Setting That May Help Improve Access and Contain Costs

News Release
July 11, 2013

Alwyn Cassil (202) 264-3484 or acassil@hschange.org

WASHINGTON, DC—Consumer demand for more convenient and timely access to care for illnesses and injuries is a major driver of 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).

Across the six communities studied—Detroit; Jacksonville, Fla.; Minneapolis; Phoenix; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and San Francisco—respondents indicated that growth of urgent care centers—there are now nearly 9,000 across the country—is driven heavily by consumer demand for convenient access to care. At the same time, hospitals view owning urgent care centers as a way gain patients, while health plans see opportunities to contain costs by steering patients away from costly emergency department visits, according to the study.

Historically, urgent care centers often were independently owned, standalone facilities, but the 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 emergency departments to lower-cost urgent care centers.

“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,” said Ellyn R. Boukus, M.A., an HSC health research analyst and coauthor of the study with Tracy Yee, Ph.D., a former HSC researcher; and Amanda E. Lechner, M.P.P., an HSC health policy analyst.

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.

The study’s findings are detailed in a new HSC Research Brief—The Surge in Urgent Care Centers: Emergency Department Alternative or Costly Convenience?available here. Other key findings include:

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The Center for Studying Health System Change is a nonpartisan policy research organization committed to providing objective and timely research on the nation's changing health system to help inform policy makers and contribute to better health care policy. HSC, based in Washington, D.C., is affiliated with Mathematica Policy Research.