Trends: ED crowding may be pushing growth of urgent care centers

Over the past few years, emergency department crowding has grown steadily worse, with waits climbing to an average of 3.3 hours as of 2006, according to the CDC.

Given these pressures on the ED, patients may finally be starting to do what others have predicted they would for years: visiting urgent care centers. About 8,000 UCCs now belong to the Urgent Care Association of America, a trade group that tracks such providers.

In an effort to standardize the care patients receive at such centers, the association is drafting a list of criteria they can use to evaluate their neighborhood UCC. Right now they vary widely, with some open 24/7 and some keeping day and weekend hours; some offering physicians on-call and some providing physicians on site; and some with x-rays and labs and others with no testing capabilities.

Some 15 percent of UCCs are affiliated with existing hospitals. Also, hospitals are responding to the influence of UCC procedures, with some, for example, establishing "fast-track" procedures within the ED, moving non-emergency patients to the care physician assistants.

The truth is, given the pressure on most EDs, it's surprising hospitals haven't gone into urgent care more aggressively already. But that's perhaps a discussion for another story.

To learn more about this trend:
- read this Los Angeles Times piece

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