|With hospitals across the United States operating at or above capacity, many people are turning to other healthcare providers to help them access timely and affordable medical treatment. Increasingly, this level of care is found at urgent care clinics, which are privately owned health centers designed to provide convenient care for non-critical injuries and illnesses. Some critics have called the growing numbers of these clinics worrying and have begun pushing for stricter regulations for urgent medical care. However, some hospitals have embraced urgent care centers as part of a treatment model that combines private and public medical care to improve the overall health of their communities.
Lahey Health is one such healthcare provider that has welcomed the arrival of urgent care clinics. Located in northeastern Massachusetts, Lahey Health consists of five hospitals and medical centers, as well as a dozen outpatient centers. Despite this existing network, the organization has established a partnership with CareWell Urgent Care, a privately owned chain of medical walk in centers. While some hospitals might regard CareWell’s presence in the area as a threat to their revenues, Lahey is benefiting from a redistribution of patients, as many low-income patients with minor medical problems choose to visit CareWell’s facilities instead. This allows Lahey’s centers to focus their resources on more serious cases.
As the number of patients with insurance increases as the Affordable Care Act expands, minor medical problems have begun sapping resources from a high number of hospitals in the United States. More patients means that hospital emergency rooms need more staff on duty, more supplies, more beds and more tests, resulting in high costs for both the facility in the patient. Further complicating matters are the case of low-income patients who may be unable to pay high emergency room costs even with health insurance, cutting off the hospital’s revenue stream. Because of these problems, a growing number of hospitals in the U.S. have chosen to cut their services or have closed completely, as they are unable to match their profits to their losses.
In these situations, urgent care centers can be extremely helpful; these clinics focus on less serious injuries, with an estimated 89.8% of urgent care centers treating workplace-related illnesses, back pain, sprains, and other musculoskeletal issues. Moreover, they are significantly cheaper than emergency rooms, a natural draw for patients of all income levels who are tired of paying high health care costs. This can help reduce ER overcrowding, saving both the community and local hospitals considerable amounts of money.
However, not everyone is convinced that urgent care centers are a beneficial trend. In New York, for example, the state’s Public Health Council recently recommended that regulations dictating how urgent care centers were operated be tightened. This advisement came after a case where a 39-year-old father visited an urgent care center for joint pain, was prescribed exercise, and died of a heart attack within a few weeks. The family later learned that the man had been diagnosed by a physician’s assistant,a type of medical professional with less schooling and training, instead of a doctor. The New York State Public Health Council and many other critics believe that there should be increased transparency at urgent care centers on who is providing treatment, how often they are inspected, and more.
Despite this foreboding information, however, it is important to remember that urgent care clinics are a relatively new addition to the healthcare industry, with many facilities opening in the last five years. As a result, further regulation could likely emerge in the next few years. But for now, the benefits urgent care centers offer their communities and other healthcare providers can’t be denied or ignored: if you are seeking out urgent medical care, simply consider researching the specific center first.