Urgent care centers may be siphoning patients from primary care visits as well as replacing ED visits.

Subacute care centers are experiencing record market growth.

In 2021, the urgent care segment has grown to be a $38.5 billion industry — more than doubling since the last time we reported on this in 2017 when the industry was at $15 billion. The segment already was experiencing rapid growth, which was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to an expected 3.4% increase in market size this year.

Why are urgent care centers so popular?

As people’s lives become busier, it is harder to plan ahead and make appointments, and sometimes, life just happens. Emergency department (ED) visits are costly. Ultimately, there are some ailments that end up not being true emergencies, yet they still require timely care.

Patient wait times at urgent care facilities tend to be much shorter than at EDs or even at the family doctor’s office. Although primary care physicians still are a valuable resource, an ongoing shortage of physicians limits their capacity and lengthens the wait for appointments.

New technology like virtual visits and online registration tools have made urgent care centers even more accessible. By mid-2020, approximately 85% of 1,100 urgent care clinics across the nation were using telemedicine — up from just 29% in 2019. Companies scrambled to quickly build apps and implement them, scrambling to hire doctors to provide remote services.

Net Impact on the Subacute and Acute Health Care Spaces

In an effort to understand how the health care landscape has been changing around urgent care centers, researchers have examined the industry closely. On one hand, urgent care centers may be siphoning patients from primary care visits and increasing health care costs overall, but on the other, they may be replacing ED visits. Their research found that:

“Having an open urgent care center in a ZIP code reduced the total number of ED visits by residents in the ZIP code by 17.2%, due largely to decreases in visits for less emergent conditions. This effect was concentrated among visits to EDs with the longest wait times. We found that urgent care centers reduced the total number of uninsured and Medicaid visits to the ED by 21% and 29.1%, respectively.”

Depending on how individual areas across the country look, this could have a positive effect on value-based care, but could be very harmful for EDs’ financial outlook.

Interestingly, the rise in usage of UCCs does not promise to reduce health care spending in the U.S. Researchers found that for every $1,646 low-acuity ED visit prevented, there was another $6,327 spent in urgent care centers.

Competition or Cooperation?

With the rapid influx of urgent care centers, EDs will need to adjust to both lower volume and higher acuity. Many EDs are finding ways to create partnerships and work with urgent care centers, finding value in managing patient capacity.

In some areas of the country, there are indications that the urgent care market is now saturated and will experience no more growth. Increased competition may eventually weed out some of the newly opened centers, especially those not affiliated with a nearby hospital system. Urgent care centers also taking notes from emergency medicine, working to distinguish themselves as a specialty through their own quality metrics and indicators, allowing consumers to compare outcomes.

At d2i, our emergency medicine clients know us as a leader in the data analytics space. As the health care market gets more crowded with UCCs, it will be even more important for hospitals, EDs, and UCCs alike to make data-driven decisions to optimize their performance and improve efficiency. Contact us to learn more about our Emergency Medicine Performance Analytics application or to request a demo.