Hospitals turn to urgent care centers for ED alternative

Urgent care facilities help address growing costs, looming PCP shortages

Hospitals nationwide are opening urgent care centers to provide a lower-cost alternative to crowded EDs and address the looming primary care physician (PCP) shortage, Kaiser Health News reports.

Urgent care centers generally accept patients without appointments and provide a range of treatments and screening services. Unlike retail health clinics, the facilities usually have a physician on site. Moreover, they charge patients about half of what hospital EDs do. According to the Urgent Care Association of America, the number of urgent care centers has grown from 8,000 facilities in 2008 to 9,200 facilities in 2011. Overall, about three million patients visit urgent care centers each week.

According to the American Hospital Association, about 28% of U.S. urgent care facilities are owned by hospitals. The centers can help boost hospital bottom lines by increasing admissions while controlling spending. Although hospitals may benefit financially when insured patients visit the ED, the federal health reform law encourages more cost-effective treatment, says Paul Swenson, CEO of John Muir Health System's physician network.

At the same time, urgent care centers present a viable alternative for patients struggling to access a PCP as physician shortages grow. However, some physician groups are concerned that the increased reliance on urgent care centers could hinder efforts to coordinate care because patients do not have regular physicians (Galewitz, KHN, 12/7).

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