Urgent Care Centers, Impatient
Patients , and Flexible Doctors
We have a flexible and adaptable economy.
John Snow (born 1939), Secretary of
Treasury under President George W. Bush
I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is
flexibility at all times.
Senator Everett Dirksen (1896-1969)
September 20, 2012 – Americans are an impatient
people. When patients are sick, they have an urgency to
see a doctor. And they dislike waiting.
Physicians are flexible
if they sense patients have a sense of urgency when seeking a doctor, or are
apprehensive about even finding a doctor,
or dislike waiting to see a
doctor, you can join or form an urgent care center.
There are now 9300 of these centers, and
their numbers are growing every day.
Here is why, as explained in a September 17, 2012, Kaiser Health News
Urgent Care Centers Are Booming,
Which Worries Some Doctors
When Emily Auerswald and her children need care for minor
illnesses or injuries, they head to a shopping center near Annapolis, Md. that
has a Starbucks, a Five Guys hamburger joint and an urgent care center.
Doctors Express in Edgewater is open nights and weekends,
and accepts walk-ins without an appointment.
"I have a doctor, and my kids' pediatricians are
great, but we'd prefer not to have the long wait in the office. So we come here
and everything seems so much faster," said Auerswald, 36, who was having a
doctor remove the stitches he had put in her foot after a weekend boating
Such centers treat the most common injuries and illnesses
- including colds, ear infections, cuts and back pain - in addition to taking
X-rays and performing simple blood, urine and drug tests.
And they are booming: An estimated 3 million patients
visit them each week, according to the Urgent Care Association of America.
Since 2008, the number of facilities has increased from
8,000 to 9,300 -- and that's not counting smaller and more limited walk-in
clinics in pharmacies and big-box stores such as Target and Walmart.
Some physicians groups warn that the overreliance on the
centers can complicate efforts to improve health through better coordination of
"Family doctors take a more holistic view of a
person," said Glen Stream, president of the American Academy of Family
If a teenager comes in with lacerations, for instance, a
family doctor might broach the subject of alcohol or drug use, he said.
Similarly, a series of seemingly minor illnesses might indicate a larger, less
Next Gold Rush?
But consumers seeking to avoid long waits in emergencies
rooms and grateful for more convenient evening and weekend hours are driving a
steady growth in urgent care centers.
Rick Morani, owner of the clinic near Annapolis, said he
bought the Doctors Express franchise -- one of 54 nationwide -- because he
expects the growth curve to look "like a hockey stick."
Many urgent care centers are stand-alone doctor's
offices, sometimes called "doc-in-a-box" locations. But much of the
recent growth has come from chains, said Tom Charland, chief executive of
Merchant Medicine, a Minnesota consulting firm that tracks the industry.
Concentra, the nation's largest chain, has 324 centers,
including 14 opened in the last nine months.
"There's plenty of funding out there from private
equity people who feel this is the next gold rush," said Robert Graw Jr.,
the chief executive of locally based Righttime Medical Care, which has nine
centers in Maryland and is planning new ones in Maryland and in Virginia.
Growth is expected to increase even faster in 2014, when
the Affordable Care Act starts to bring health-care coverage to as many as 30
million Americans, many of whom do not have regular doctors, said Charland.
While urgent care centers typically offer hundreds of
medical services, they do not perform surgery and are not equipped to deal with
life-threatening emergencies. In most cases, a doctor is on site, although care
may be provided by a nurse or physician assistant who is also on staff. Many
centers are busiest in the evenings and on weekends, when most doctors' offices
In the past, at least some of the patients who now go to
urgent care centers would have ended up in hospital emergency rooms. While the
typical $100 visit to a center is comparable in price to a visit to a doctor's
office, an emergency room visit can cost more than twice as much. A 2010 Rand
Corp. study found that almost one in five visits to hospital emergency rooms
could be treated at urgent care centers, potentially saving $4.4 billion
annually in health-care costs.
The lower costs have drawn the attention of insurers.
Many have added urgent care centers to their provider networks, and one has
gone a step further. Humana, in 2010, purchased Concentra.
Even hospitals have jumped in, adding their own urgent
care centers. In July, for example, Dignity Health, the nation's fifth-largest
hospital system, bought U.S. HealthWorks, the second-largest urgent care chain,
with 147 centers.
Inova Health System, in Northern Virginia, has four
urgent care centers and is looking to add a fifth.
"Strategically, we want to be able to provide better access for patients
in our market where there are shortages of doctors," said Loren Rufino,
director of business operations for Inova's ambulatory services division.
For patients, convenience and lower costs seem paramount.
Diantrey Thompson, 26, of Glen Burnie, Md., recently had
a cyst removed from his head at Righttime's location in nearby Gambrills.
Although the restaurant manager has insurance and a regular doctor, he says,
"I've been coming here for years because they are just so efficient."
Urgent care center executives clearly understand that
saving time is a major selling point. Righttime, for example, has a goal of
getting patients in and out within an hour.
From a command center in Crofton, Md., an employee tracks
all Righttime centers via cameras set up at front desks and in hallways.
A computer system monitors how long people have been
While showing a visitor around, Graw
notes a monitor with a flashing bar -- an alert that a patient has been at one
of his centers for longer than an hour.
Tweet: Impatient patients, tired of
waiting to see or trying to find a doctor, are flocking to urgent care centers,
and doctors are joining or forming these centers.
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