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What You Need to Know About Urgent Care Facilities

Merritt Hawkins, a health care consulting firm, conducted a study in 2013 to find out the average wait time between patients calling a doctors' offices and when the patients can be seen for an appointment. Calls were made made in 15 major metropolitan areas and a variety of practices were contacted, including cardiology, dermatology, family practice, orthopedic surgery and obstetrician/gynecologist. The study found some alarming numbers:

Allied Health

Type of practice

Shortest time

Longest time

Average

Offices called

Cardiology

2.4 days

65.7 days

16.8 days

262

Dermatology

3.1 days

123.9 days

28.8 days

294

OB/GYN

2.9 days

57.7 days

17.3 days

284

Orthopedic Surgery

2.1 days

31.8 days

9.9 days

282

Family Practice

2.87 days

79.3 days

19.5 days

277

When people have a medical problem, waiting even two days to be seen by a doctor can feel like an eternity. There is the option of going to the emergency room, but as more patients opt to use ERs for non-emergency medical care, wait times climb.

A solution is beginning to present itself in the form of urgent care facilities. These offices are sprouting up all over the country and receiving interest and funding from a number of sources and sectors.

What is urgent care?

Urgent care facilities are essentially walk-in clinics that examine and treat patients for a multitude of medical symptoms and issues. They keep longer hours than a traditional doctors office and may even offer evening and weekend appointment times.

The cost of urgent care is also typically much lower than a trip to the emergency room. An article in the New York Times points out the differences in some of the costs. Treating bronchitis in an ER can cost about $800 for a patient and their insurance. An urgent care facility can treat it for a little over $100. An ear infection can cost a patient and their insurance $500 for an ER visit, while going to an urgent care facility for the same illness might cost someone $100.

Nick Angelis, a nurse anesthetist and author of "How to Succeed in Anesthesia School (And RN, PA, or Med School)," spoke about other benefits of urgent care facilities.

"Because there's less variance in acuity, urgent care facilities can divvy up work between staff and among physicians and advance practice clinicians like myself more easily. The slightly slower pace probably decreases medication and treatment errors as well."

With many hospitals and ERs having trouble seeing patients quickly, and the rising costs of health care for individuals and their families urgent care may be a viable solution. Many doctors, however, are skeptical of the growing popularity of these health care facilities.

Patiently waiting

The New York Times article quotes a doctor who brings up the relationships he builds with his patients, saying that it is an important part of the patient visit. This relationship can be born from conversations about health concerns, questions about medicine, or other topics brought up during visits.

David Dragoo, M.D., health care expert at Money Crashers, points out that sometimes doctors and patients contribute to long wait times during these discussions.

"Physicians should keep the discussion or diagnosis to the original reason for the visit and not let the patient bring up other health-related issues. This keeps appointments from going longer than anticipated."

It is important for a doctor to get to know a patient and understand his or her particular health concern, but it can have a detrimental effect on care overall if it leads to longer wait times for other patients. Angelis agrees that doctors need to establish a bond, but that it does not need to happen over a long visit and that a relationship "can be just as strong for a quick ten minute urgent care appointment as it can be between an oncologist or other specialist and a patient."

Urgent care facilities can be the best place for people who are dealing with minor illnesses or injuries, and many different sectors are taking notice.

Where is the money coming from?

Since 2008, private investment firms have infused a little over $2 billion into the funding and building of urgent care facilities. Traditional hospitals and doctors offices are investing in these facilities as well as insurance companies. Urgent care is estimated to be a $14.5 billion industry and many people would like to cut a slice out of that lucrative pie. Humana, an insurance company, purchased Concentra and its 300 urgent care facilities for $800 million in 2010. Dignity Health bought U.S. HealthWorks and its 176 facilities, while Florida Hospital is opening its own urgent care offices.

Some patients and health care professionals might see the influx of money in the urgent care sector and fear that private firms and insurance companies who invest are going to cut corners when it comes to offering the best care. Dragoo feels that this investment could be a good thing for the industry.

"[This amount of investment] may improve it since the investor knows that quality of care will be a large determining factor in long-term profits."

The bottom line of urgent care

Urgent care can be a welcome relief for patients who are tired of waiting long periods between calling a doctor's office and having their appointment, or who do not want to sit in an ER for hours with a simple cough. Hospitals and investment firms can profit from this growing sector of health care by offering a place for patients to drop in and get affordable, quick health care. As long as everyone sees the bottom line, and the care is up to par, urgent care may shift the way that health care works in the U.S.

Sources:

Interview with David Dragoo, health care expert and MD at Money Crashers, conducted by Jamar Ramos on July 16, 2014

Interview with Nick Angelis, nurse anesthetist and author of How to Succeed in Anesthesia School (And RN, PA, or Med School), conducted by Jamar Ramos on July 17, 2014

"Physician Appointment Wait Times and Medicaid and Medicare Acceptance Rates, Merritt Hawkins, 2014, http://www.merritthawkins.com/uploadedFiles/MerrittHawkings/Surveys/mha2014waitsurvPDF.pdf

"Race Is On to Profit From Rise of Urgent Care," Julie Creswell, The New York Times, July 9, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/10/business/race-is-on-to-profit-from-rise-of-urgent-care.html?_r=0

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