Urgent Care centers are outpatient walk-in clinics that specialize in treatment of illnesses or injuries that require immediate attention but are generally not serious enough to require an emergency room visit. Most are not open 24 hours a day but do operate 7 days a week with extended hours. Urgent Cares normally treat a wide-range of conditions, have a licensed physician on staff, and have on-site diagnostic equipment including x-ray. The majority of physicians that staff Urgent Cares are either family medicine, emergency medicine, or internal medicine physicians, and they are equipped to handle, among other things, broken bones, minor cuts requiring stitches, and most common colds and other illnesses and injuries. Urgent Care centers have expanded rapidly in recent years with thousands found throughout the United States and are most commonly owned by physicians, corporations, or hospitals.
The biggest advantage of an Urgent Care is the considerable cost-savings offered as compared to an emergency room. A 2010 study in Health Affairs estimated that 13.7 to 27.1 percent of all emergency department visits could take place at an Urgent Care or retail clinic with a potential cost savings of around $4.4 Billion annually. Urgent Cares are not equipped to handle serious emergencies including severe trauma and other life-threatening injuries and illnesses, so in these cases the emergency room is the absolute right option. However, in non-life-threatening situations, Urgent Cares can offer near immediate access to a provider at a much lower cost to the patient and the entire healthcare system. Urgent Cares are cheaper if you have health insurance and often offer discounted self-pay rates for uninsured individuals.
Service is another advantage of Urgent Cares as compared to ER's for patients with non-urgent conditions. A patient presenting in the ER with a non-urgent condition will not be high on the ER's priority list and can expect to wait awhile to receive care. Urgent Cares specialize in treating conditions that require immediate care but do not warrant a visit to the ER, so in many cases the patient's wait time will be less and the issue will be resolved faster and at a lower cost.
There is also readily available information to assess the quality of Urgent Cares. There are organizations that offer accreditation/certification for Urgent Cares including the Urgent Care Association of America (UCAOA) and the American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine (AAUCM).
Retail clinics, also known as convenient care clinics, refer to walk-in practices located in retail stores, supermarkets, and pharmacies. They are usually even less expensive than Urgent Cares but are often staffed by a nurse practitioner or physician's assistant as opposed to a physician and, in general, offer a more limited range of services. Retail clinic services normally include vaccinations, physicals, health screenings, and treatment of minor injuries and illnesses among other things. Retail clinics are a good option for insured individuals that do not have a primary care provider and for uninsured individuals looking for the most cost-effective and service-oriented option for minor medical needs. Examples of retail clinics include the Minute Clinic located at select CVS/pharmacy stores and the Healthcare Clinic (formerly Take Care Clinic) located in select Walgreen's stores.
Urgent Care centers and retail clinics offer a service-oriented and low cost walk-in option for patients seeking treatment for conditions that do not warrant a trip to the emergency room. At least one study has indicated that up to 1 in 4 trips to the emergency room could be adequately serviced at an Urgent Care or retail clinic with potential savings of approximately $4.4 Billion annually. In general, these practices are cheaper than the ER for both insured and uninsured patients and can be a good option for individuals that do not have a primary care physician, although we would suggest finding a PCP if this is the case. More research is probably needed to determine if the quality of care offered at Urgent Cares is equivalent to that at an ER, but there are accrediting bodies for Urgent Cares that can be utilized to assess quality.
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