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You’re at your son’s Friday night football game when he collides with a player from the other team. He’s not seriously hurt — only a scratch below his left eye from the other kid’s helmet. The last place you wanted to spend your Friday evening was in a crowded emergency department. Then, you remember there’s a new urgent care clinic open only a few miles away. 

This scenario — the availability and proximity of an urgent care center, not necessarily the football injury — is becoming more common across the United States. In only the past four years, the number of these facilities has increased dramatically — 60% since 2019. There were 11,481 urgent care centers in the U.S. in 2018. That number is now at 14,382. 

One reason for this rapid growth is the COVID-19 pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, the average urgent care clinic saw two to three times the normal number of new patients. 

Urgent care clinics handle about 89 million patient visits annually – that’s more than 29% of all primary care visits and nearly 15% of all outpatient physician visits in the nation. The two fastest-growing urgent care segments are pediatrics and rural and secondary markets. 

The Push of Patient Preferences 

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the only reason so many urgent care centers are popping up around the country. A major driver is patients’ expectation of convenience as evidenced by the growth of healthcare consumerism

Just how convenient are most urgent care centers, at least geographically? Almost 90% of the U.S. population lives within a 20-minute drive of an urgent care center, and nearly 80% is within a 10-minute ride. 

Convenience for patients means more than distance to their provider’s office. Urgent care centers offer extended hours and often are open on weekends, making it easier for patients to either get an appointment or simply walk in for one. They don’t have to take time off work or school for their appointment. 

Another benefit of these facilities is shorter wait times. Research has shown that 70% of patients waited less than 20 minutes to see a provider at an urgent care center, and nearly 94% were seen in less than 30 minutes. Overall, 85% of urgent care center patients are taken care of in under an hour. 

Patients not only don’t want to wait long in their provider’s office, but they also dislike waiting weeks before getting an appointment, part of which is due to the shortage of physicians in this country.  Approximately 26 percent of patients want to be seen by a provider the same day. 

For some patients, the choice to seek care at an urgent care center instead of a hospital emergency department is due to cost. One study found that the average cost of an emergency department visit is $1,646. The average cost for an urgent care visit is a mere $171.27. 

Plus, there’s typically much less crowding. It’s estimated that urgent care centers prevent around 24.5 million emergency room visits annually. In addition to reducing the burden on emergency departments, this saves patients and the healthcare system valuable time and money. 

Meeting Patient Demand Through Digital Health Tools 

Digital health tools aren’t only for mainstream medical groups. Using online scheduling, patients can check for next open appointment spots and select a time and location that best meets their needs. They can even check in before their appointment on the go on their mobile device, providing both convenience and a more secure and confidential registration. 

For patients who want to avoid a potentially busy and “germy” environment, telehealth offers them a safe and efficient alternative to in-person care. Such virtual care can be utilized to reach patients who might not otherwise have access to quality healthcare. And, there is some evidence that patients who see virtual providers also have fewer visits to the emergency department or urgent care. 

Are you interested in seeing how digital care can make a marked difference for your urgent care centers? Schedule a meeting with us to learn more!