About seven years ago, the California Healthcare Roundtable and HealthAffairs sat down to prepare a white paper on the emerging “phenomenon” of urgent care centers, and what it might mean for primary care. At the time the group couldn’t agree that urgent care was a “disruptive” innovation, but it seemed clear to all participants that it represented a threat to primary care: The rise of UC, the group noted, would lead to 1) less preventive care and 2) concentrate acuity in primary care clinics. They wrote: “[Urgent care] means fewer patients per day, a higher intensity environment for providers, and potentially lower reimbursement.”
In particular, the group couldn’t understand if patients were choosing to leave primary care because they didn’t value having a PCP, or if they were settling for the inherent limitations of UC because cost and convenience outweighed its disadvantages.
Seventy-five percent [of UC customers] are women ages 28 to 42 and their children. Some hypothesize that this consumer group thinks of its health care relationships differently than do people of the baby boomer generation and older. The younger cohort often has no “medical home,” while baby boomers and older people tend to view the primary care physician as the center of their medical care. Discussants concurred that what the data do not reveal, however, is whether the medical “homelessness” of this younger group and its high relative use of retail clinics reflect how these consumers want to receive their care or is instead merely their experience (or is a function of the fact that they have fewer chronic conditions and thus need less care and care coordination).
Since the roundtable in 2007, there has been a flood of urgent care centers with ongoing rapid growth. The American Academy of Urgent Care estimates that there are around 9300 UCs nationally. Across the country, clinics are sprouting like flowers, sometimes fueled by private equity investors, but often by hospitals and health systems who are reflexively installing UCs in repurposed strip malls, sometimes without a clear strategy other than “keeping market share” in an otherwise low margin business.
The reasons for growth, according to the American Academy of Urgent Care? Primarily extended hours (as compared to primary care) and better wait times and lower prices than the ED.
As the private-equity fueled urgent care bubble expands, here’s my prediction on how this all plays out: Don’t bet the farm on UCs being the final answer to the consumer’s search for value. For all of UC’s utility, it’s also possible that urgent care may just get out- maneuvered by the next generation of primary care.