Express Medicine: The Growth of Urgent Care Centers and Potential Problems

With emergency rooms demanding notoriously long wait times, the proliferation of urgent care centers has been a welcome trend for many families. Often located near shopping centers or strip malls, urgent care centers are conveniently located to have a quick evaluation of a persistent cough or to obtain a consultation on cuts and sprains. According to the Urgent Care Association of America, in 2012, there were around 9,000 urgent care centers that had an average of 357 patient visits per week. That number has undoubtedly grown as more than 40 percent of survey respondents also noted that they planned to expand either the existing site or add other sites.

Currently, there are 20,000 physicians who practice at urgent care clinics and their extended hours on evenings and weekends offer peace-of-mind to patients whose lives do not align with hospital and clinic office hours. To bolster confidence in the care provided by urgent care centers, many are seeking Urgent Care Center Accreditation which is a voluntary process where centers are able to measure and advertise the quality of its services against nationally recognized standards. Further, the majority of urgent care centers employ at least one full-time physician on staff who are likely trained in either family or emergency medicine.

Problems with Over-reliance on Urgent Care Centers

With approximately 110 million emergency room visits every year, demands on the health care system will only continue to grow. Thus, the convenience of urgent care centers will be attractive to patients who have minor injuries or non-life threatening emergencies. Moreover, a 2010 Rand Corp. study found that almost one in five visits to hospital emergency rooms could be treated at urgent care centers with government savings estimated to be $4.4 billion annually.

Yet, there are limits to the type of care that urgent care centers can provide, and potential patients should not trade the speed of consultations for a proper diagnosis or treatment. In some instances, going to an urgent care center only to be referred to the emergency room will result in unnecessary delays, leading to in unforeseen complications or further injury. Coordination of care is also a potential danger as primary care physicians who have a long history with a patient can pick up warning signs that an urgent care provider may miss and have more opportunities for follow-ups with patients. Prescribing medications can also pose dangers when staff at urgent care centers fail to obtain a complete medication and allergy history from patients including over the counter medications and supplements.

Lastly, some conditions are life-threatening and always require prompt attention at an emergency room. These include:

  • Suspicion of poisoning
  • Burn injuries
  • Severe head, neck, or back injury
  • Severe bleeding
  • Dizziness or unconsciousness following falls or strenuous activities

Because the urgent care center trend is still a recent one, potential customers should also be aware that many family practice policies do not cover this type of medicine and many urgent care centers do not carry malpractice insurance. If you have suffered an adverse health event as a result of care at an urgent care center, call The Pittman Firm for an evaluation of your case and to obtain appropriate

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