Primary care threat: Urgent care grows more popular

More patients are seeking treatment at urgent care centers rather than making an appointment with their primary care physician because of convenience and time savings, according to an NPR report.

Statistics show that although the majority of Americans have a primary care doctor, a large number also seek treatment at urgent care centers for medical issues that aren't life-threatening but are serious enough to be seen that day, NPR reported. In many cases, it's just easier to get seen in an urgent care center.

A recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found most people went to an urgent care center because it was more convenient and took less time than going to their primary care doctor. One in five people said that at least once in the past two years they were not able to get an appointment with their regular doctor when they needed medical care. The most common reasons were the primary care doctor did not have any appointments available, the office was closed, or the doctor was out of the office, NPR reported.

Across the country there are now more than 7,000 urgent care centers. They take walk-in patients and most are open in the evenings, weekends, and holidays, with some open 24 hours. A visit to an urgent care center is cheaper than a visit to an emergency room. In the poll, most patients reported costs of urgent care visits was "reasonable" and 75 percent said the care provided was "excellent" or "good." But that leaves 25 percent who found their care was just "fair" or "poor."

To compete with urgent care centers, some physician practices are taking lessons from that model and staying open longer hours and on weekends. For instance, a medical group in New Jersey now offers 24-hour primary care at one of its offices, as FiercePracticeManagement recently reported. To provide convenience to patients, others take steps such as allowing patients to book appointments online.

Visits to retail clinics and urgent care centers currently make up 20 percent of primary care encounters, with telemedicine consults beginning to encroach on doctors' patient base as well. While innovations are changing healthcare, the trends have not necessarily been positive for the physician-patient relationship. While retail clinics and smartphone apps offer convenience, they don't offer the personal connection between patients and their doctors.

To learn more:
- read the NPR article