Do urgent care centers hurt patients?

Amid the healthcare industry's efforts to reduce the overuse of emergency departments (EDs), a new poll indicates too many patients may seek treatment at urgent care centers instead, posing a risk to their health.

The poll, conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), surveyed nearly 3,000 ED physicians, 86 percent of whom indicated that there's at least one urgent care center within 10 miles of their workplace. More than half the physicians said these urgent care centers were marketing themselves as alternatives to visiting the ED.

As for the effects of these new care options, more than one-third of the respondents noticed a change in the number of patients visiting their ED as a result of the nearby urgent care centers, with 21 percent saying there was a decline in patient volume and 16 percent saying there was an increase. And it seems many aren't convinced of their value--77 percent said "they see patients with more complicated issues" due to the growth of urgent care centers, and more than three quarters of the ED physicians indicated they are concerned about patients with serious medical conditions going to an urgent care center before going to the ED.

"This is a new twist, given all of the attention focused on preventing emergency visits," ACEP President Michael Gerardi, M.D., told Forbes. "Many people may feel they are saving time or money by going first to urgent care, but in instances of serious illness, that loss of time can be dangerous. Urgent care centers are great options for common medical problems, but they are not substitutes for emergency care."

Though many have hailed them as efficient, affordable healthcare treatment options that hold an increasing appeal to younger generations, the ACEP poll is not the first time questions have been raised about the drawbacks of urgent care centers. Many EDs and primary care practices are concerned about the competition posed by the rapid growth of the industry, despite the fact that many hospitals are choosing to pursue partnerships with urgent care centers, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

The poll also found that 72 percent of ED physicians think states should have specific staffing or equipment criteria for urgent care centers. Gerardi reinforced this sentiment, telling Forbes that urgent care centers are best equipped to "treat minor illnesses and injuries, such as sprains and minor cuts requiring stiches. They don't have the capabilities that emergency departments do for complex diagnoses and treatments."

To learn more:
- check out the poll (.pdf)
- read the article