Urgent care clinics, staffed by physicians and equipped with state-of-the-art lab and diagnostic imaging, are sprouting up throughout the United States like mushrooms after a rain, giving prospective patients a new and flexible alternative to expensive hospital emergency rooms.
In my area of South Florida, about half a dozen such clinics have opened for business in the last year—even though I am only a good golf shot (preferably a driver) away from Holy Cross Hospital to the South, and Imperial Point Medical Center to the north—both, highly-rated, tertiary institutions.
For snowbirds, who don’t have permanent linkages to their own family doctors for several months at a time, the UCC is not only a time-saver, but a far cheaper and simpler healthcare alternative to the multi-purpose hospital. Many of these clinics are open seven days a week, are easily accessible, capable of handling most non-emergency or life-threatening primary care, and most accept health insurance—including foreign travel plans that are serviced through international assistance entities. The great majority also have physicians on site, and for snowbirds—who are sometimes reticent to go running to a hospital ER with a chest or abdominal pain that may or may not be an emergency—they can provide the triage that separates the urgent from the emergent.
According to the Urgent Care Association of America, there are more than 9,000 UCCs in the U.S. and more are opening every day, borrowing the Walmart principle of situating in suburban areas where their customers live, play and send their kids to school. And, also like Walmart or Costco, they offer low-margin, high-volume services, market to whole families who need a broad array of services, get their customers in and out quickly (a recent survey showed that the majority have wait times of less than 20 minutes), and surveys have shown that the average cost for a UCC visit was $156 compared to $166 in a private physician’s office, and $570 in a hospital ER.
Some are stand-alone facilities funded by groups of doctors. Many are owned or otherwise affiliated with hospitals, health insurers, or private investors. The New York Times reports that since 2008, private equity firms have invested $2.3 billion into urgent care clinics.
And according to Beckers Hospital Review, an influential professional journal, 40 percent of existing UCCs expect to expand their existing site or open additional business at another site.