Urgent care centers are quickly emerging as a popular, cost-effective alternative to the emergency department, reports a new study by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) for the nonpartisan, nonprofit National Institute for Health Care Reform.
The growth of nearly 9,000 urgent care centers across the country is driven by consumer-demand for convenient and timely access for care for illnesses and injuries, according to an announcement about the study. At the same time, hospitals are jumping on the bandwagon to gain patients, and health plans view the centers as a way to contain costs by steering patients away from costly ED visits, the study says.
In the past urgent care centers were independently-owned, standalone facilities, but the study says the landscape has changed. Now large urgent care center chains operate in some regions, and hospital systems are establishing these facilities to expand their service area and referral base.
"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.
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 finds.