Patients 50-plus flock to urgent care centers affiliated with hospitals, PCP practices

The number of urgent care centers--increasingly operated in partnership with hospitals and healthcare systems--is expected to keep rising as the population ages and the number of people with insurance grows, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The number of urgent care centers could be as high as 10,000, the paper reported, and on its way up to 11,500 in 2020. Of the 7,100 full-service centers counted by the Urgent Care Association of America, 22 percent are owned by hospitals and 15 percent are in joint ventures with hospitals, according to the article.

Those investments by healthcare systems are driven in part by a desire to serve patients over 50, including Medicare patients, who go to urgent care for injuries and illnesses knowing that the center is connected to the healthcare system where their regular doctor practices, according to the article. They can be seen on evenings and weekends and pay a copayment similar to what it costs to see their primary care doctor.

An article in Washingtonian magazine also cites Americans' desire for on-demand services as a reason for the explosive growth in urgent care centers.

"There is a general trend in healthcare toward convenience for the patient," Ian Slinkman of Patient First, a Richmond-based network with more than a dozen urgent care centers, told the magazine. "In fact, we see insurance companies recommending that their members use urgent care as a convenient, cost-effective alternative to the emergency room for non-life-threatening conditions."

The magazine notes that urgent care is no longer considered a purveyor of substandard "doc-in-a-box" medicine. Urgent care centers are deliberately improving their "curb appeal" to attract patients who also could go to their primary care provider or an emergency room, according to the article.

The industry has been focusing on cosmetic improvements along with shorter wait times for the past five years, Michael Kulczycki, executive director of the ambulatory accreditation program for the Joint Commission, told the magazine.

In fact, urgent care centers now are seen as a threat to primary care practices, FiercePracticeManagement recently reported. Patients like the convenience of being able to see a provider the same day--something primary care practices can't always offer. An urgent care visit also can take less time than a visit to the primary care office.

To learn more:
- read the WSJ article
- see the Washingtonian article