Now more than 9,000 urgent care centers in the U.S., industry report says

Patients in a hospital waiting room
Urgent care clinics saw 9.6% growth from 2018 to 2019, according to an industry report. (Getty/SuwanPhoto)

The number of urgent care centers in the U.S. has now topped 9,000, according to a report from an industry group.

The Urgent Care Association released its 2019 benchmarking report that showed the total number of centers had reached 9,616 as of November 2019, a 9.6% jump from the previous year.

The number of centers has increased steadily each year from 2013, when the total number of urgent care centers was 6,100. Both urgent care centers and retail clinics have continued to grow across the U.S. as patients look for convenience and affordability, creating competition with traditional hospital and physician practice services.

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Almost 97% of urgent care patient encounters lasted one hour or less, the report found. And 92% reported it took 30 minutes or less for a patient to see a provider. That demonstrates the quick and convenient service that meets the on-demand access to care important to patients today, the group said.

One-quarter of patients seeking care at urgent care centers are unaffiliated with a primary care provider or medical home, the report said.

“The year-over-year growth across the country shows the importance of urgent care in today’s healthcare marketplace, as today’s patients seek affordable healthcare options, shorter wait times and more convenient access to care,” said Laurel Stoimenoff, the association’s CEO, in an announcement.

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Traditional physician practices have had to react to the unwillingness of many patients to tolerate long waits and inconvenient appointment times. Many practices have already reacted to changing patient attitudes by providing same-day appointments, convenient hours and multiple ways to communicate with doctors as they compete with the growing number of retail clinics, urgent care clinics and telemedicine services.

The report said 98% of patients going to an urgent care center are in the appropriate care setting, with only 2% being sent to an emergency room for care.

When it comes to patient visits by payer, most patients (55%) are covered by commercial insurance, following by 22% with Medicare or Medicaid, 10% who paid with cash and 7% who paid via occupational health or workers’ compensation.

And the urgent care industry is adapting to continue to meet patient needs, Stoimenoff said. “To meet public demand and trends, the industry continues to innovate and expand by leveraging technology, new services and evidence-based medicine including telemedicine, physical therapy, occupational medicine and more,” she said.

Focus on improving antibiotic stewardship

Urgent care centers are also increasing their focus on antibiotic stewardship and expanding access to telemedicine services.

The association last year launched an advocacy program aimed at curbing inappropriate antibiotic prescribing in urgent care settings. A JAMA Internal Medicine study found that urgent care clinics generate inappropriate prescriptions for respiratory diagnoses at much higher rates than other care settings.

Urgent care center leaders are focusing on measurement and educational practices around antibiotic stewardship. According to the report, 98% of survey respondents said they have at least one monitor in place to oversee antibiotic prescribing. Centers reported analyzing diagnostic codes regularly to determine if prescribed antibiotics are appropriate, as well as educating patients and family members with in-clinic signs and providing materials to those with upper respiratory infections.

“Urgent care providers see a high volume of patients with acute, infectious disease-related symptoms, which results in a greater need for antibiotic stewardship. It is gratifying to see how the industry has responded to this looming crisis,” said Stoimenoff.

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Almost all the centers (99%) said they have measures in place to monitor appropriate opioid prescribing.

Expanding access to telemedicine

More clinics are planning to incorporate telemedicine into their business as a vehicle to treat patients. According to the report, 30% of respondents who are not currently offering telemedicine services intend to do so within six to 12 months.

Telemedicine can increase healthcare access for patients across the country, particularly in underserved communities. Telemedicine services can also help alleviate crowded emergency departments while reducing the impact of physician shortages in communities nationwide, the report noted.

It's not just doctors in urgent care clinics who are getting on board. In the first-ever analysis of physician interest in telemedicine, the number of physicians who self-reported telemedicine as a skill doubled between 2015 and 2018 and continues to increase annually by 20%, according to a report from Doximity, the professional medical network.